From starving on the streets of Italy to inspiring his own line of dog food, The Rockster’s rags-to-riches story is a true testament to the power of the human-animal bond.
In many parts of the world, free-ranging urban dogs are a common sight. It’s not unusual for tourists to offer these stray and feral canines something to eat, or share photos of them as a way to raise awareness for street dog overpopulation. But every once in a while, a good Samaritan will go out of their way to rescue one of these homeless pups. They arrange the required health checks, pay the necessary fees to transport their new furry friend home, and give him a shot at a better life. Zoe and Sven Ley are among these good Samaritans – but they didn’t just change their new dog’s life. He changed theirs.
While honeymooning on the Amalfi Coast in 2004, Zoe and Sven spotted a stray dog lying on the steps of a beach restaurant in Nerano. According to locals, he’d been there for three days. He was emaciated, bleached by the sun, and desperate for a meal. In this part of the world, it’s not uncommon for street dogs to travel through small towns on their way to Pompeii, so passersby barely gave him a second glance. But the couple’s hearts went out to the sickly canine, and they felt compelled to help him.
Setting their honeymoon plans on the back burner, Zoe and Sven gave the stray some food. His gratitude – albeit silent – tugged at their heartstrings and planted a seed in their heads – could they adopt him? But despite their immediate love for the little mixed breed, they did what most travelers do. They reluctantly walked away.
“As we were leaving, Sven saw I was crying at the thought of leaving this dog,” says Zoe. “As the tears turned to sobs, Sven rushed back up the steps saying he’d left something important behind, only to return with this magical mutt in his arms.”
And so began the Leys’ married life together. Two became three, and the honeymoon was cancelled.
“We had no choice as no hotel would accept dogs,” recalls Zoe. “So we found ourselves on the streets of Capri with our suitcases and new dog, now officially named Don Rocky di Nerano, aka The Rockster.” But despite the change in their plans, the newlyweds were more than happy to do what it took to accommodate Zoe’s four-legged wedding present. As for The Rockster, he displayed immediate loyalty and unconditional love toward his new family. As his humans planned their next steps, he cocked his head and ears as if listening intently to every word.
Before leaving town, Zoe and Sven took the Rockster to see a local vet who confirmed he was at least three years of age. Though he was quite healthy, he was much too thin. As they made their way home, the Leys’ fed their new pup beef, as it was something they had easy access to on the road. For the better part of a week, The Rockster ate like a king, and he began to gain weight quickly.
But when they finally made it to Sven’s house in France and bought their new pup some commercial dog food – it went to waste. As his humans unpacked their suitcases, The Rockster took mealtime into his own hands. “No exaggeration, he left his food in the bowl and escaped from the property,” says Zoe. “We eventually found him begging for food at a beach restaurant called La Voile Rouge!”
From that point on, it was a continuous struggle to get The Rockster to eat dog food. According to Zoe, even the most natural high quality pet food was of no interest to their picky pup. To get him to eat, they resorted to feeding him what they were eating. But this wasn’t ideal, and Zoe and Sven knew they had to figure out an alternative. Feeling desperate, they enlisted the help of a dog nutritionist.
During their appointment, the Leys gained a lot of insight into The Rockster’s fussy tendencies. “When you learn how to read a pet food label and discover what lies beneath the packaging – that’s a seminal moment for any loving dog parent,” says Zoe.
Because The Rockster was considered a senior dog, they knew he needed to be nourished with something that was packed with nutrition. Commercial pet food was no longer an option, but neither was serving him steaks.
So in 2014, the Leys got to work at developing their own diet for The Rockster. They started with the concept of removing antibiotic activity from the meat and – with help from dietary experts in Germany – focused on natural palatability and the nutritional content of each recipe. They also sought organic ingredient sources to support the immune system, increase antioxidant intake, nurture the gut microbiome, and optimize nutrient absorption. Sous vide – a process that involves slow-cooking food in sealed, food-grade bags submerged in boiling water – allowed Zoe and Sven to preserve the delicious taste of the food without sacrificing its high nutrient profile.
The recipes took months to complete. But when The Rockster took his first bite, the Leys knew it was worth it. “His subsequent transformation and utter love of life was just a dream come true,” says Zoe. “The trips to restaurants stopped, and he has licked his bowl clean every day since.”
Impressed by how well the food was working, Zoe and Sven decided to offer it to other dog parents. Naturally, they called it “The Rockster”, and soon people were knocking on their door asking for more cans.
Today, The Rockster is 20 (give or take) – and still thriving! In fact, besides being hard of hearing, he’s the picture of good health. He still enjoys his favorite activities – cuddling, and hiking in the mountains with his humans. “We did a three hour hike last August and he beat me up the mountain by ages,” says Zoe. “I found him, paw on a rock, waiting. He looked at me as if to say ‘what took you so long?’”
Zoe has dozens of stories like this one. “Perhaps the most extraordinary example of the bond we share is when I was in hospital, very ill with the birth of our daughter,” says Zoe. “The Rockster slipped out of a friend’s apartment, only to be found sitting underneath my hospital window, 1.7 miles away. It’s The Rockster who rescued us in so many incalculable ways, and there’s nothing we wouldn’t do to give back to him.”
The Leys have stayed true to their promise. From abandoning their honeymoon to rescue The Rockster, to spending years creating a special diet to meet his special needs, Zoe and Sven have gone above and beyond to make their little Italian-born street pup feel loved. In turn, The Rockster has been a loving and loyal companion to the couple for nearly two decades. If that’s not a testament to the human-animal bond, what is?