CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Vannessa Arnett was absolutely devastated after her beloved boxer jumped out of the window of her husband's moving car and never came back.
The north Charlotte mom has spent so much time at animal control looking for her lost dog over the past nine months, the staff knows her by name.
"I would go there every day," said Vannessa Arnett. "Even though they didn’t have a boxer come in, they didn’t want to disappoint me, so they said, ‘You’re welcome to walk around and look just in case.’ And that’s what I did."
Rocky disappeared on June 24, 2018. Devodie Arnett was taking the dog home from PetSmart on Reames Road that day.
"I had the window rolled halfway down so he could get some air. With his paw, he hit the button, and the window rolled all the way down," he said, "and he just jumped out while I was driving."
Devodie Arnett stopped the car as soon as he realized what happened, but the 2-year-old boxer disappeared into the woodline.
He called his wife immediately.
"I told her what happened, and she was crying. And she said, ‘I’m on my way.’" he said.
"We searched and searched, and we couldn’t find him," Vannessa Arnett said. "I was upset, depressed, didn’t think that I would get him back. But I kept hoping and praying that he would come back."
The couple made posters, showing the dog’s picture and their phone number, and plastered them all around the neighborhood. They even offered a $500 reward for Rocky’s return.
"We would go out every day after work and I would just go look and continue looking for him and was praying that someone would call that number and tell us they found Rocky," said Vannessa Arnett.
Desperate and heartbroken, she turned to social media in hopes of finding Rocky. She posted in the Lost and Found Pets-Charlotte group on Facebook, NextDoor, and PawBoost. There were several possible sightings, but none of them turned out to be Rocky.
"I had a lot of people say, ‘Is this Rocky?’ No, this is not Rocky," said Vannessa Arnett. "From Concord to Gastonia, I drove all the way out there, not telling my husband, just going and searching, getting my feelings hurt because it wasn’t Rocky."
"But I just kept on pushing," she added.
"For some reason, my wife never gave up hope, but after a couple of months, I didn’t think we would get him back," Devodie Arnett said.
By the time Christmas rolled around, he decided to surprise his wife with a puppy. Plus, their other dog, Ali, was missing Rocky something fierce.
"She already told me, she didn’t want another dog, that she wanted her dog back,” Devodie Arnett said. "But me and my son talked about it, and I said, once we get the dog, and she sees the puppy, she’ll probably change her mind."
Vanessa Arnett welcomed the new pup, Kam, into their home, but she continued her search for Rocky and just knew, someday, he would come home.
Meanwhile, in another household just a few miles away, the Auker family was trying to befriend a dog they’d spotted near their home.
"It was probably late September when we first saw him, just kinda wandering through the neighborhood," said Jeremy Auker.
"I mean he was a skeleton," said wife Stephanie Auker. "I just thought, if that dog doesn’t eat, he’s gonna die. You could see every bone in his body, every rib, every vertebra, I mean, everything."
That’s when she went to work.
"My wife started going out there and just sitting on the ground with food about ten feet away. It was just week after week of doing that, where each time he might get an inch closer," said Jeremy Auker. "It took months to get him to trust us."
"He always showed up at our house in our backyard. And there’s a neighborhood behind us," said Stephanie Auker. "We even drove down in there and spoke with some people down there, and they had seen him. He was definitely making his rounds, getting his meals, but they couldn’t get close to him."
Weeks and months went by, and eventually, the Aukers, who already had two Labradors, were able to pet Rocky and get him to come in the house.
"We’d let him go back out, but I hated it because I didn’t know where he was sleeping. I worried about him every night," said Stephanie Auker. "It would rain, and I would think, ‘Oh my gosh, where is he? Is he underneath shelter? What’s happening to him?’ I wanted him to come in so bad, but I didn’t want to force him."
Rocky picked a bad time to become an outdoor dog. Two major hurricanes swept through the Carolinas in the fall of 2018: Florence and Michael. Rocky weathered both, somehow, as well as winter.
But things changed in March. Rocky decided he’d had enough of life in the wild, and the Auker home looked like a good place to crash.
"It was an afternoon that it was raining, and he just came right on in. And he was like, alright, this is where I’m going to stay now," said Jeremy Auker. "He spent the night in the house, slept on the bed, and acted like he’d been there all along."
"I wanted him to choose to come live with us because we would get him inside and he would be so nervous," said Stephanie Auker.
Her husband started searching for "missing boxer Charlotte" on the internet, thinking that Rocky was now so comfortable in the house, he must have a family somewhere.
"It was probably the sixth or seventh site that I came across Vannessa’s posting," he said.
"Jeremy found the post, and he sent the picture to me, and I said, ‘That’s him, absolutely, there’s no doubt about it, that’s him," Stephanie Auker.
Jeremy Auker messaged Vannessa Arnett online and on the phone.
"When I listened to the message, I was like, ‘Okay, oh my goodness, this could be him, this could be him,’" Rocky’s mom said. "And I said, ‘Okay, don’t get your hopes up, don’t get your hopes up, but, okay, let me call him.’"
Jeremy Auker was also worried about getting her hopes up.
"I asked my wife if she could run him up to PetSmart really quick just to check for a microchip so we could verify," he said.
Minutes later, Vannessa Arnett received the news she’d been praying for all those months.
"Jeremy said, ‘My wife said the chip says Devodie Arnett,’ and I was like, ‘That’s me, and I was like, no, that’s us, that’s my husband, and I was like, that’s Rocky!’" Vannessa Arnett said.
Once Devodie Arnett got the news, reality sank in immediately.
"One side of me was like, dang, now we’re going to have three dogs," he said. "But then another part of me was happy, because I knew she really loved that dog."
"Regardless of whether we got ten dogs," Vannessa Arnett said, "I told my husband Rocky’s going to be home one day."
On March 27, 2019, the two families met after Jeremy Auker got off work at 9 p.m. The wait was excruciating for Vannessa Arnett.
"I mean I couldn’t get off (the phone) fast enough," she said. "I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s only 6:30, it’s only 7 o’clock, it’s only 8:30.’"
The reunion was joyous yet bittersweet for the Aukers who’d grown attached to Rocky, especially the kids, 10-year-old Emersyn, 7-year-old Carson, and 5-year-old Anson.
"The girls and his son were crying, and Rocky was loving each and every moment of it, because he was getting love from all of us," Vannessa Arnett said.
"We were so happy to know that he had a loving family that missed him and that he was going to go back home. But I definitely was a little heartbroken that he was leaving us," said Stephanie Auker. "But so relieved and happy that I don’t have to worry about him anymore."
Now Rocky, who turned 3-years-old in February, is adjusting to life with two brothers instead of just one.
"The little puppy bites a lot, but now they’re playing together, and it’s like one big happy family," Devodie Arnett said.
As for the Aukers, they put their reward money to good use.
"I took the wife and kids out for a nice dinner to celebrate the good deed they did," Jeremy Auker said.
Vannessa Arnett’s broken heart is healed, and she owes it all to the Aukers.
"Rocky means the world to us. And like I said, I never gave up hope. I knew he was coming home," she said. "And they (the Aukers) made that dream come true. And I just want to thank them for that."