We recently caught the Smithsonian show, Dogs with Extraordinary Jobs, which we watched with great enthusiasm while eating guacamole and chips from the couch. (Some dogs and humans are meant to be heroes—the rest of us are happy to be their adoring fans.) We were struck by the story of Rocket, a search dog who was rescued from the euthanasia list. Rocket was deemed unadoptable due to his high energy and drive—but those very traits also made him the perfect search dog. Now, the Border Collie mix lives in California with his handler, firefighter Mike Stornetta, but they also travel around the country on search-and-rescue missions (wherever duty calls). As climate change causes more and more extreme weather disasters like wildfires and typhoons, search-and-rescue dogs have become even more critical to our daily lives. We spoke to Mike (and Rocket) about life with a working dog, from meeting fans to being there in times of need (for others and each other).
What is a typical day in the life for you and Rocket, knowing that every day must be different especially when you’re on call?
“Rocket’s the reason I’ve been able to get through some critical, tough situations.”
Rocket truly is my work partner. I work as a fire captain for Sonoma County Fire District. It’s a very unique experience to have a canine coming to work with a firefighter. He stays in my dorm room at night because we do 48-hour shifts. When we get a call in the middle of the night, he wakes up with me. When he was younger, he would wake up and get riled up. Now, he kind of groans and is upset because his sleep is interrupted. But we come to the fire station, and we do some sort of training every single day.
It’s important that Rocket stays up to speed with his training. The guys love to pet him. We obviously have some pretty horrific calls—and they actually use him to debrief. I’ve seen our firefighters out in his kennel, and he’s helping them relieve stress. I think he can sense that they’re a little stressed out!
Even though you’re based in California, I’ve noticed that you and Rocket have been all over the U.S. on search-and-rescue missions.
Rocket and I are on California Task Force 4, which is one of the 28 FEMA task forces that are positioned throughout the country. Through these deployments, we’ve been to Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma in the Florida Keys, where Rocket searched buildings for survivors. We were also part of California Regional Task Force 1, which is an OES task force. Through that task force, we’ve gone to the Montecito mudslides to look for survivors, as well. On a local aspect, Rocket that can deploy anywhere in our jurisdiction. We’ve gone to plane crashes. Rocket’s been all over! On training missions, we’ve gone all over, from Virginia Beach to Tennessee.
Does Rocket have fellow working dog friends on his travels?
We travel in teams for the most part. When our task force gets deployed, we typically deploy with two or four canines. It’s imperative that all these canines that are trained by the Search Dog Foundation pass a certain level of testing where they can be friendly with other dogs, and they can search with other dogs as well. That’s super important and that’s one of the FEMA standards. So yes, he has friends.
His fellow heroes.
Rocket was deemed unadoptable because of his high energy. The types of dogs that we’re looking at don’t make the best pets. These are the dogs that will chew through your front door or chew up your couch. He’s looking at me now, like “I’d never do it!” But he probably would. These are the dogs we want. They make perfect search dogs—so much energy and so much drive. We have to give them a job to do.
What has the pandemic been like for him?
The pandemic was really hard on the canine working group throughout the country. Because of social distancing, it was really hard for our team to get together. A lot of teams had to take pauses. We’re just not using to do that. Now, we’re so excited because our training group can get back together on a regular basis.
Was he restless?
Absolutely. When these dogs are not working, when they’re not exercising, when they not out there doing things that they normally do—especially searching—they absolutely get restless. It’s up to us handlers to make sure that we’re exercising as much as we can, even though they may not be doing the full service that they’re used to. They’re getting their exercise to keep their nerves at bay.
If Rocket were a person, what would he be like?
He knows he’s a celebrity. He knows he’s a hero. I would classify him as a maverick, like in Top Gun. He’s a little cocky. A little arrogant. He gets the job done and he won’t stop at all costs.
Rocket is so adorable, but obviously he’s a working dog. What should we do when we meet Rocket and want to pet him?
First and foremost, approach the handler and ask for the handler’s permission. A lot of the times, the handler will have no problem with the dog getting petted. What we don’t want is to have the public come up and just smother the dog, because the dog wouldn’t be ready for it and we have to prepare the dog for petting. Rocket’s looking at me right now and he’s saying, “No, smother me—I want to be smothered!” But seriously, always talk to the handler. If they’re working at the airport, they can’t be petted. But if you see me and Rocket at the airport and we’re waiting for a flight, you can come up to us and ask. All dogs like love, you know?
It’s good to know that we can potentially pet Rocket! Has he helped you become a better firefighter in any way?
Having Rocket with me 24/7 in a job that is extremely stressful has helped me on a therapeutic level. That was a part of this program I had never really thought about. Rocket’s towards the end of his working career, and we’ve been paired up since 2014. I can look back at all those times we’ve have critical incidents together, and I’ve been able to debrief with Rocket. That debrief is just me petting him and him knowing that, “Hey, my dad’s a little stressed out right now.”
The communication that we have is something I never thought was possible between a human and animal. Rocket’s the reason I’ve been able to get through some critical, tough situations.
Did I hear you refer to yourself as Rocket’s dad?
Yes, yes, I did. I shouldn’t be referring to myself as such, but I feel like I could be his dad. He turned away from me as soon as I said that. So, maybe not.