Watching his comrade mature from a green, inexperienced recruit to an accomplished veteran has been one of the highlights of Sgt. 1st Class Richard Cooke Jr.’s 22-year Army career.
But helping Rocky transition from a nearly eight-year “active duty” career as a military working dog to a family pet promises to be even more fulfilling for Cooke and his family, who recently adopted the “retiree.”
“He’s gone from always being in an Army kennel facility to a house,” said Cooke, first sergeant for U.S. Army Garrison Stuttgart Headquarters, Headquarters Company. “He now has free roam of the house and the whole yard.”
Cooke was first paired with Rocky — then a year-old pup — when he was a land mine detection dog handler and search supervisor for an engineer detachment out of Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
“At the end of the day, when I needed motivation and to get my mind off things, I would play with him, and the problems would melt away,” said Cooke, reflecting on the pair’s eight-month deployment to Afghanistan during their two years of working together from 2004 to 2006.
A job change for Cooke parted the pair, but even after rotating to USAG Stuttgart in 2007, Cooke said he would occasionally touch base with his former unit back in Missouri to check in on Rocky.
Cooke learned about six months ago that the dog’s failing vision was bringing his career to an end and that he was under review for possible adoption. Cooke flew back to the States in August to make the Belgian Malinois part of his family.
“I had expressed … to his handler, the unit and other Soldiers that if the opportunity to adopt Rocky came up, I would be interested,” Cooke said. “It was heartbreaking to work with him for so long and then to see him go with someone else, even though I was happy with the handler he was going to.”
The Robby Law, enacted in 2000, allows MWDs to be adopted following completion of their military careers.
Officials say that most MWDs serve long, useful careers, working for the Department of Defense for at least 10-12 years. Dogs nearing the end of their military careers are carefully screened for their potential to be adopted as pets or transferred to other government law enforcement agencies, according to the Department of Defense Military Working Dog Program website. The program runs out of Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
When military working dogs’ fitness or age keeps them from begin considered for civilian law enforcement duties, more than 90 percent are adopted by their handlers at field units, officials say.
Most of the dogs that become available for adoption at Lackland Air Force Base, however, are relatively young dogs that have failed to meet training standards, according to the website. Others are older dogs that have completed their service. Still others are medically retired from service due because of an injury or sickness that will preclude them from performing the mission.
Officials say more than 1,000 MWD adoption applications are processed each year.
Once an appointment is made to meet a dog, prospective adopters can expect to make at least two visits. The first visit is spent reviewing the application and greeting the dog. Once the dog is selected, it has to be prepared for adoption, which includes a referral to the veterinary clinic for a departure physical. Then, after signing a legally binding contract that transfers the dog from the Defense Department to its owner, adopters are free to take their new family members home.
“When we first reunited, Rocky showed little interest or recognition of me because his handler was there,” Cooke said of his reunion with Rocky in Fort Leonard Wood for the adoption.
“When I sat down on the floor, he cautiously came up to me and smelled me. But then he finally recognized me, it clicked, and he went hyperactive.”
While the Cooke family was excited about the prospect of adopting Rocky, they admitted that there was some apprehension about adding to their family of two children and three cats.
Cooke took a week of leave from work to acclimate Rocky to their house and the other pets. Cooke’s wife Renate said she was concerned about how Rocky would fit in, having always lived in a kennel instead of a home.
“I wasn’t sure how he would fit in, but things have been great,” she said. “He’s one of the family members, like the cats are, now. He’s such a sweet dog.”
Daughter Kimberly Cooke, 15, laughed as she said she wondered whether Rocky would get along with cat Sasha, who she described as “22 pounds of pure attitude.” However, Sasha wasted no time “putting Rocky in his place,” she said.
“He’s such a great dog, and I know it makes my dad happy to have him,” said Kimberly, a sophomore at Patch High School. “Things are different because before, Rocky was like a family friend, but not truly part of the family. But now, I don’t know what it would be like without him.” Kimberly said that several of her close friends know that Rocky is a former military working dog, but don’t really understand what that means.
“People have a fear that they’re attack dogs,” Richard Cooke said. “But that’s not the case. So many dogs could go to great homes, but people are unaware that the adoption program exists or that many are not attack trained. They’re really carefully assessed and very safe to adopt.”
The adoption screening process includes a medical exam and an assessment of the dog’s temperament. Potential owners are also screened by the military working dog unit commander.
Renate Cooke described Rocky as “high-energy, but mellow in character.”
Son Jesse Cooke, 12, said that he really likes having an older dog. “He’s not like a six-month-old puppy — he always listens,” he said. “He’s very obedient. It’s great having him around.”
Still, there are challenges in having Rocky as a pet. The family avoids walking him in the evening because of his vision problems, and they try to always make sure there’s ample lighting for him to see by, especially on the stairs.
Everyone follows Richard Cooke’s lead on how he corrects and rewards Rocky because of their history together.
“It’s really rewarding to see him grow from a pup one year of age — fresh and green — to an accomplished veteran who has done amazing things for our country and the overall mission in Afghanistan,” Cooke said. “It’s like watching a kid grow up and do great things.”
But Richard and Renate Cooke agree that the chapter of Rocky’s life with the military is closed and he is now getting some much-deserved rest.
“I feel like we’re giving him a type of retirement home,” Renate Cooke said. “He’s not under the constant stress of working and deploying anymore.”
Richard Cooke echoed his wife’s sentiments. “I just want to give him the best and fullest life I can.”