Rocket was absolutely the chillest dog you would ever meet. He rarely got excited, wasn’t nervous except around thunderstorms or fireworks, and pretty much got along well with anyone, man or beast. Strangers came and went all throughout our recent home renovation and many times Rocket wouldn’t bother to lift his head.
If you could imagine a low maintenance pet, Rocket was it. I can think of only one time in the entire eleven years he lived with us that he peed in the house – and that was my fault for not reading his signals. Some of that is his fault, though, because his signal for needing to go outside was always to stand quietly in front of the door. If you weren’t paying attention you would miss it!
We brought Rocket home from the Lab Rescue of North Carolina group after seeing his photo on their website. A rescue volunteer brought him over on Travis’s fourth birthday (October 2008) so we could see how he fit into the family. Rocket immediately made himself at home, winning our hearts. It was clearly a good match.
We didn’t know Rocket’s history when he came to us. By then he was already 2+ years old. He was pudgier at the start than he was with us. He brought with him a large, mystery scar that stretched across the front of his shoulders. We never did figure that out. His tongue was a mystery, too: pink around the edges with a splash of dark purple down the center, almost like a chow’s tongue. He looked nearly 100% black Labrador other than that, though.
Part of his early education was lacking. He was a nightmare to walk: bullheaded and strong, paying no heed to the hapless holder of the leash. In spite of his lack of manners, one of the first things we did was toss his choke collar in the trash. Obviously it wasn’t doing any good, so we would have to find other ways of getting along.
Rocket also didn’t do the dog things he should’ve loved to do, like running, fetching, and swimming. Early on, he would run for about a mile before stubbornly managing a trot the rest of the way. He would fetch for about 5 or 6 throws if you were lucky before he’d be veering off to find a lump of tall grass to chew.
We didn’t know if we liked the name he came with, “Rocket.” For a brief time I called him Rocky but it didn’t seem to stick. Travis, feeling a special connection to Rocket because he arrived on Travis’s birthday, nicknamed him his “poose,” a mashed-up version of pooch. We frequently called him “bonehead” after all of the goofy trouble he would get into.
It took some time to get to know him. Early on, he was in the back yard with Kelly when a neighbor’s Siamese cat stupidly wandered into our yard and refused to leave. Greatly undisciplined at the time, Rocket charged the cat and caught it, swinging it in his powerful jaws. The poor cat escaped the yard only to die later of its wounds.
Kelly was upset to the point of being hysterical. We couldn’t have a violent animal living with our young kids. There was talk of giving Rocket up. We decided it may have been an aberration but we were on our guard.
It wasn’t long before another incident caused concern. Rocket was in his bed when Travis came over and tried to start playing with him. Rocket was having none of it and the next thing I know he snaps at Travis!
Whoa, I admitted to myself. That crossed a line.
I yanked Travis away and then Kelly and I had a far more serious conversation about our dog’s future. Rocket was saved, though, when I realized that he had been actually feeling sick and didn’t appreciate Travis being in his face. Fortunately, Rocket soon felt better, the family had a discussion about reading a dog’s signals, and that was the last time I ever saw him be anything but loving towards us.
We went on a lot of adventures together. Rocket would come camping with us, even having his own little corner of the tent. While he was never much of a runner he did enjoy long walks or hikes, always trailing his hind legs slightly askew to the left of his front legs. Part of him not knowing how to “dog” included never feeling the need to hang his head out the window as we drove. I guess he was too dignified for that.
When I could not find anyone to go sailing with me I could always count on Rocket. He seemed to enjoy being on the water. Navigating over the lifeline to get into the boat was always the biggest issue but once he was aboard, he would stretch out in the cockpit and calmly take in the sights and smells on the water. I was always grateful for the company, even if he wasn’t very good at helping to sail the boat.
Our most favorite memory of Rocket was his lovely singing voice. Something about Hallie playing violin would spark him to start howling along, giving full-throated accompaniment in only the way he could. Sometimes I would egg him on with my own howling and while he howled he would watch me to make sure he (or I) was doing it right. Fortunately, he would often stop singing after a few minutes and it was usually enough for the moment but his exuberance never failed to make me laugh. It was sad when he became too deaf to hear Hallie’s violin and he sang no more.
Rocket was a chewer. He destroyed countless “unbreakable” dog toys. He loved to sneak up and pounce on his Nylabones, always giving an impressive head toss before moving in for the kill. Several times he would mix up his upstairs Nylabone with his downstairs Nylabone and “bone confusion” would result. This is when he would decide to pounce on his bone but couldn’t decide which of the two he wanted to pounce upon.
We’d be lucky if Rocket limited his chewing to Nylabones but that wasn’t the case. Early on, we left him alone for ten minutes when a thunderstorm was approaching and came back inside the house to find our remote control scattered on the floor in a dozen pieces. Paint peeled from our doors as he would claw and lick them to get out. He finished off all the medicine that Kelly’s mom once left on the table, suffering no ill effects. He destroyed dozens of brand-new, never-used sandwich containers in one sitting, carefully taking a small bite out of each one. And he fished the sandwich out of the bag of our neighbor, Jessica, who then became known to him as the “nice sandwich lady.”
While we were stringing popcorn on the Christmas tree at Kelly’s parents one year, Rocket seized the opportunity to finish off one popcorn kernel, not knowing it contained a needle and thread! I watched in slow motion as he swallowed it, knowing exactly what was happening but powerless to stop it. That resulted in a few hours at the emergency vet with $800 X-ray, though he passed the needle naturally – and again with no repercussions at all. He lived up to his bonehead name!
There were times, though, when he did spooky things – things I cannot explain. Like how he knew when Kelly was coming home before the car had pulled into the garage. Or how he would start up the stairs to get in his crate long before I made any motion or gesture that indicated I was about to leave. These would happen and I would spend the next hour debating in my head if I had really seen what I thought I had seen (but I really did). You read studies that show just how much dogs can read their people but this was something above and beyond that. I think part of the reason he was so chill about things was because he was reading our reaction, either through our gestures or, ah … other ways. There was definitely something to it.
I won’t forget the time we were at Kelly’s parents’ home and the kids were demonstrating their musical talents. It was Travis’s turn to play so he was at the piano playing his piece while we were all gathered round in respectful silence. Rocket, meanwhile, had taken advantage of our absence to go rooting through the kitchen trash. A moment later, he casually wanders into the room with a yogurt cup stuck on his nose! It was the most hilarious sight and we wanted to burst out laughing but we didn’t dare because Travis would think we were laughing at him!
Rocket was a horrible tracker, too. Couldn’t catch a treat you tossed at him from a foot away from his mouth. On some mornings I would let him into the bedroom to say good morning to Kelly. She’d be brushing her teeth in the bathroom and Rocket would still charge right by her to check for her on her side of the bed. On weekend mornings, I would catch Rocket’s eye and he would begin to follow me around the living room. It only took one duck from me behind the wall, counter, or couch to misdirect him and he would head off in the wrong direction! Rocket just did not know how to Dog. It’s a good thing he was pretty.
The most important thing about Rocket was the way he played the role of court jester in our house. You see, we all had this fake high-pitched Rocket voice we would use to explain whatever Rocket was thinking or doing – it was an idea that we stole from our friend Scott Greenough and his Chocolate lab, Brooklyn. So “Rocket” would “complain” about the lack of respect he got, when he should’ve gotten fed but didn’t, and basically be the running joke of the family. This Rocket had names for all of us: with Kelly becoming Favorite Human, me being Fatso, Hallie as Tall Girl and Travis as Tall Guy. He could say things others couldn’t. It was through this fake Rocket voice that Rocket was gifted with a lot more personality than he ordinarily would have had. It was fun to project onto him and crack everyone else up with whatever witticism we would come up with. The dog just took it all in stride, though he did learn to recognize his “voice” and his ears would perk up whenever he heard it.
I will miss the way he snored loudly when he slept. I will miss his twitching face and legs as he enjoyed a good Dog dream. I’ll miss his sideways walking, his joy whenever it snowed, and his quiet companionship whenever I worked from home.
You always wish your pets could live forever. Maybe you even fool yourself into thinking they will. Then the end comes and we get reminded rather brutally that our time here is so very precious.
Take that nap in the sun. Run around. Do something crazy. Love everyone fiercely. And whatever you do, don’t take the days you’re given for granted. That what Rocket would say.