By: Terry Harris | Email: Click Here
Posted: Feb. 26, 2018 | 1:20 p.m.
SUSSEX – Rocket may have retired in January at the ripe old age of 12 (in people years!), but judging by how eagerly the Yellow Labrador approached the training course at Ventosa Kennel K9 Training Center in Scotland Neck, NC last week, she must think she’s still a puppy. Deputy Strawn Darden of the Sussex County Sheriff’s Department, her handler, explained, “She’s a big kid! She’s been a part of the family since day one.” And he ought to know, as Rocket lives with his family.
“She could stay active longer, because she doesn’t do apprehension,” he continued, “and she loves it! But in the K-9 world, when a dog begins to deteriorate they generally deteriorate fast, so we retired her before that begins. We don’t want to see her work right up to that time, so she can have time to just be a dog and run around and play.”
On a tour of Ventosa’s 70,000 acre indoor training facility, owner Tennessee Bowling led the way through the area where they train dogs to locate explosives and drugs, among other things. Tennessee started the facility in 2002 with her late husband, Tracy, who literally wrote the book on Police K9 Tracking. Michael Beaulieu, the head trainer who was previously a K9 handler in the military, travels to find and test particular dogs for specific types of training, according to Ventosa’s strict standards, and estimated that he has trained between 400 and 500 dogs at the facility, including Rocket and, now, Zorro.
Following the tour, Darden let rocket have a little fun. She quickly located the scent of meth amphetamine hidden in one of the lockers and the cocaine scent hidden among the pipes in the scent wall. Then, in spite of the overlaying smells of oil and gasoline in the vehicles area, she made short work of finding the drug scent there as well before happily demonstrating that the ladders, fences, and other obstacles in the indoor training area were no challenge for a true champion.
As Rocket took a breather, Darden shared a few highlights of Rocket’s career.
“We’ve helped several agencies with narcotics and tracking over the years,” he began, “and done a lot of stuff in schools. They love Rocket at the schools in Sussex. She’s amazing with kids. When I take her to the school I let the kids take the leash and I let one go and hide and I walk beside the other one and she’ll take them right to the kid that’s hiding from them. This shows them the kind of training and temperament she has – that it’s safe to be around her. And the other side is that we’ve assisted several counties in addition to Sussex with school searches. The administrators tell us when they want it scheduled, and we have explosives canines in case there’s weapons on the grounds and our narcotics canines. We try to do it every year, because our goal is to keep the kids safe.”
Darden said that Rocket’s most notable narcotics find was the recovery of 25 pounds of marijuana with a street value of $100,000 from a residence within the county for an undisclosed federal agency. Another time she helped when there was a home invasion in Surry, tracking the subjects – who had fled on foot – from the scent on a hat that had been left on their vehicle. During the search Rocket located a firearm and some other articles that had been dropped.
One of the sadder efforts involved a search, on Christmas Eve, for an adult male with autism who was missing. Rocket tracked him from the residence to the Appomatox River that night, and knew that the man had been there, but there was no way to know if he had gone into the river. The next day there was a possible sighting near the river, so Darden and Rocket spent all of Christmas Day searching again, but to no avail. Asked if they have has had calls to search for missing children, Darden responded, “Luckily any time we’ve had calls to help find children they’ve mostly already been picked up, and we can just go back and track where they’ve been.”
Finally Zorro, the stunningly beautiful Belgian Malinois in training to follow in Rocket’s footsteps in mid May, arrived from the nearby 7,000 acre tracking area and posed for pictures. Darden explained that dogs like Zorro, from Poland, and Rocket, from Holland, often are imported from major kennels in areas where police and sport dogs are specially bred. After the pictures, Rocket was led back toward the car – and home. She was too well-trained to strain at her leash, but observing the spring in her step, it was easy to imagine that after many years of faithful service to Sussex County and its environs, her new motto may well be, “Girls just want to have fun.”