Let’s not talk of love. Not yet, at least. Instead, let’s meet Nick Wheeler, a musician with 10 years of experience in “the industry,” with the cumulative sales with his pop-punk band, The All-American Rejects, reaching well into the millions. He’s driving from Florida to Oklahoma with a dog in tow. There’s so much change and newness in store on this trip, it might as well be spring. Only, it isn’t: It’s January 2010, the dead of winter. And Wheeler finds himself on a nasty, icy stretch of I-40, somewhere between Nashville and where he grew up in the Sooner State.
His cell phone rings. It’s his father.
“I had to pull over,” Wheeler says. “Between the drive and the phone call, it was too much information for me to process. So I talked to my dad for a little bit. I called my girlfriend at the time. And I got myself together. Then I finished the drive home to my family.”
The call was about Wheeler’s childhood dog, Chiquita, who after battling cancer for almost 14 years, had passed away that morning. Just as Wheeler was uprooting himself to move to the West Coast.
Before packing up, Wheeler realized the relocation and prospect of writing a new All-American Rejects album from scratch meant there would be a lull in the band’s touring schedule, which had kept the four-piece on the road for almost six years. It was the perfect time to adopt his own puppy.
“I met him in Florida at a place called Alaqua Animal Refuge,” Wheeler says. “And he literally hopped in the car and we started driving.”
The dog Wheeler decided to adopt was a tiger-striped mutt he named Dexter, after one of his favorite TV shows. It was love at first sight. Though the early days of their bonding weren’t without some tense negotiations.
“Honestly, when I first adopted him, we had quite a bout of separation anxiety,” Wheeler says. “My shelter pup cost me a lot of money in wooden blinds. But I did a little bit of training, leaving the house just a few minutes at a time, building it up just a little bit longer. And it was pretty easy. We hung out for a weekend and, after that, we were good. And he’s been extremely chill ever since.”
The year of uninterrupted bonding Wheeler had anticipated was threatened when the All-American Rejects signed on to take part in 2010’s Warped Tour for two weeks in the summer of 2010. “I often joke he gets along better with people than he does other dogs,” Wheeler says. “He likes other dogs, he loves to say hi to them. But it wears off really quick. And when we’re on tour, it’s not too long before he wants back on the bus with all the people.”
By the time The All-American Rejects wrapped up their latest album, Kids in the Street, everyone surrounding the band — musicians, roadies, even their fans — had embraced Dexter as the unofficial fifth member.
“When we started touring again a couple months ago, everyone started asking, ‘Is Dexter coming? Is Dexter coming?'” Wheeler says. “And I was like, well, hell yeah! Absolutely he is!”
The All-American Rejects touring party can consist of as many as 14 people on a bus. Wheeler was unsure if the crush of bodies and personalities was fair to Dexter and the rest of the group. But now it’s hard to imagine life on the road without him. “Thankfully, everyone loves him and vice versa,” Wheeler says. “He comes to all the meet-and-greets now and all our fans want to see him, almost more than they want to meet us.”
The fan attention started through Twitter, where Wheeler began to tweet pictures of Dexter, like a proud and doting parent, he says. There are times when fans will recognize Wheeler in public and shout the dog’s name before the rock star’s. Then there are the gifts: To acknowledge a song from the new album called “Beekeeper’s Daughter,” fans have inundated Dexter with apian-themed toys, from plush beehives to all manner of chewable plastic bees.
More symbolically, Dexter recently joined another extended family. While finishing up the new All-American Rejects album in Los Angeles, Wheeler had a picture of Dexter tattooed on his right leg. On Wheeler’s left leg there has long been another portrait, of Chiquita.
Wheeler’s otherwise jovial and boyish disposition still assumes the sudden and disarming weight of a mourning parent when he speaks of her. “The day I was driving to Oklahoma, right after I had adopted Dexter, is when I got the call,” Wheeler says. “They literally missed meeting each other by a matter of hours.”
The All-American Rejects are working with Petfinder all year to help more shelter pets find forever homes. Read Nick’s Happy Tails story of how he adopted Dexter, and check out Petfinder’s Facebook page for behind-the-scenes video updates of Nick and Dexter on the road, as well as other exclusive band promotions.