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A pawsitive addition to Needham

Officer Rocket and Needham school resource officer RJ Poirier have been among the town’s most famous residents as of late.

By Maddie Gerber 
Hometown Weekly Intern

It was a gloomy day at Eliot Elementary School when Officer Rocket, a recent four-legged addition to the Needham community, led me down the hallways towards the fourth grade classrooms, where students were relegated to their desks for indoor recess, unable to engage with each other like usual due to pandemic restrictions. However, as soon as the dog entered, the entire demeanor of the room changed, with students immediately lighting up and approaching the officer excitedly, each stroke of his golden fur seeming to melt away some of their stress. Even from behind their masks, it was clear that they were smiling.

Rocket came to the Needham Police Department a year ago through a grant provided by the Norfolk District Attorney’s office and in partnership with Superintendent Dr. Gutekanst of the Needham Public Schools. The District Attorney’s office works with Golden Opportunities for Independence (GOFI), a community-based nonprofit out of Walpole that breeds and trains dogs in the hopes of turning them into assets for the community at large. As a community resource dog from GOFI, Rocket certainly embodies their mission, serving the community in a variety of capacities from inside the Needham Public Schools and beyond. 

His primary focus for the past year, in addition to training, has been working in the various schools in conjunction with school resource officer RJ Poirier. As a resource officer, Poirier is not a disciplinarian, but rather someone who ensures that everybody is safe in school “and bridges home-life to school-life in a lot of ways.” Poirier and his new four-legged partner spend most of their days in a spontaneous manner, touching base with a variety of students with the goal of “engaging as many people as possible to make sure that everybody is doing okay.” Although Poirier is based out of the high school, since Rocket lives with the high school math department head, John Shea, the pair is always prepared to be called upon at any moment to visit Needham kids in need. Poirier has found that Rocket has been especially instrumental in encouraging anxious students to come to school, since “kids want to go to school to see Rocket.” 

“I’m sort of in the shadow of Rocket now,” Poirier admits with a laugh, “he has just been such a superstar, especially with the elementary school students. It is really great to see the kids light up when they see him.” Poirier also notes how Rocket came to the community at such a critical time: “I think, if anything, this last year has been so difficult with the pandemic, and everybody has sort of felt a mix of emotions. He [Rocket] is certainly not going to solve world problems, but I think he can bring some brightness to people’s days -- even a moment goes a long way.” 

For the majority of students, this has certainly been the case. According to Johnanna White, a senior at Needham High School whom Rocket has developed a special affinity for, Rocket has played a major role in navigating her eating and anxiety disorders. For White, both Rocket and Poirier have had a major impact on her life; “I don’t think they realize, but they have both become my best friends and a resource for me if I’m feeling down or anxious.” 

NHS senior Andrea O’Connell has also found solace with the four-legged officer, noting that “I have severe PTSD, anxiety, and depression, so when I am having a tough time, Rocket always helps level me out and calm me down.

“His love is so unconditional,” O’Connell gushes. “He doesn’t care what you look like, how you’re feeling, or what’s going on, all he knows is that he wants to love you!” 

Beyond the schools, Rocket also works in the community at large and has already been on calls responding to people in mental health crises, where he’s been an effective means of resolving and de-escalating the situation. Additionally, when the police department works with someone who has been a victim of a crime and is anxious or upset in some way, Rocket has been able to comfort them during their time of need. 

Regarding the pandemic, Poirier and Rocket have made a concerted effort to work specifically with local businesses, in an effort to promote them to the Needham community. “I have been working a lot with Cyndi Roy Gonzalez,” says Poirier, referring to the town’s public information officer, who has utilized Rocket’s photogenic abilities and affinity for the camera as a way to effectively communicate with residents.

“Rocket has been an excellent addition to town government, more than I think any of us even imagined,” praises Gonzalez. “He has been such a source of joy for everyone: the kids, the business community, the town, town employees, and residents.” In addition to creating a short video featuring Rocket visiting a series of local businesses, Gonzalez and Rocket have also partnered up on the #MaskUpNeedham challenge, an effort to get people to wear masks for the people they love. Rocket has been an integral part of the distribution of masks to businesses, and so far, the town has handed out over 3,000 masks and counting. “All of these businesses are struggling and we will get through this,” says Gonzalez, “but having Rocket visit is just such a gift for people and puts a pause on all the anxiety for just a couple of minutes while he is there. 

One such business is The Needham General Store, which met Rocket unexpectedly on one of his mask delivery trips for the town. “Suddenly, this dog just comes around the corner and starts sniffing my knee,” recalls Manager Mike fondly. “He immediately put a smile on my face - I think that is the best part about him.” Other businesses have also developed a special affinity for the officer, including the Highland Animal Hospital and The Peaceful Pooch Grooming Company. Shelby Kilronomos of the Peaceful Pooch describes Rocket as a model customer, “always happy and goofy and loving, but also like an old soul and a very good citizen.”

While Rocket has certainly excelled at these local endeavors, he has become a surprise hit on social media recently, garnering an impressive 2,219 followers and counting on his Instagram (@officer_rocket). The Instagram came about during the pandemic, as Poirier needed a way for Rocket to continue connecting with students in a safe and engaging way. Scrolling through his feed, it’s no surprise that he has gained such a following. Among the silly and more serious posts, the common denominator is always an abundance of cuteness. And there is no shortness of creativity either, with Poirier constantly coming up with funny and engaging clips - to such an extent that his wife often jokes that he has become more like a social media manager than a police officer. “When you have a great actor like him, it makes coming up with ideas a lot easier,” Poirier says humbly. “As much as I can come up with ideas, it has also been students coming up to me with suggestions.”

“Whenever I am having a hard day, I go onto Rocket’s Instagram,” admits Gonzalez, who has become quite a fan of her furry coworker. “The little videos just make my day. He is becoming quite famous.”

“I am just so grateful that he is around,” says O’Connell. “I love him so much. He really is the bestest boy.” 

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