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Fargo's Rocket Dogs aims to make a big splash with lovers of dock diving doggies

Ava, 2, leaps into a 20,000-gallon pool for owner Alisha Voje on Wednesday, Dec. 18, at Rocket Dogs K-9 Aquatics and Wellness Center in Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service1 / 3
Julie Saatoff stands on the observation deck Wednesday, Dec. 18, in Rocket Dogs K-9 Aquatics and Wellness Center in Fargo, where she offers swimming and dock jumping for dogs. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service 2 / 3
Two dogs play in the pool while one of their owners, Whitney Gomez, watches Wednesday, Dec. 18, in Rocket Dogs K-9 Aquatics and Wellness Center in Fargo. The facility offers swimming, water therapy and dock jumping for dogs of all sizes. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service3 / 3

FARGO - Julie Saatoff is hoping to make a big splash when she opens for business. Or, at least, she hopes the area’s dogs will.

Saatoff is the owner of Rocket Dogs K-9 Aquatics and Wellness Center, a company located in an industrial park at 3320 39th St. S. It’s designed to cater to the lovers of dock diving doggies, as well as pooches that need to rehab, lose weight or simply play.

Saatoff plans a Jan. 4 soft opening, but on Wednesday, Dec. 18, she was working with a contractor to wrap up some niggling details, trying to make everything pawfect. That includes adding gates and another exit on a massive 40-foot competition-level jumping dock that's fully handicap accessible.

As Saatoff was coordinating with the carpenters, Alisha Voje was letting her 2-year-old retriever, Ava, live for the leap.

The whipcord lean, black beauty of a retriever at times could barely contain her excitement, a barking ball of nervous energy waiting for Voje to toss the yellow and blue dock diving toy.

As Voje neared the end of the dock, she signaled to Ava and tossed the diving toy high over the water.

Ava, took off, pounding down the dock in a flash, leaping and stretching out with unleashed abandon, ending with a pawsome splash and the diving float firmly in her jaws.

Voje said Ava was a natural at dock jumping, taking perhaps “two seconds” to train for her leaps of faith and fun.

Ava’s “a driven little thing,” Voje said, as Ava barked again to encourage Voje to do less talking and more tossing.

Voje also has a yellow labrador retriever, 4-year-old Toby. They’ve been competing for three years.

Voje said closest dock jumping facilities that she knows of are in the Twin Cities area, such as The Dog Tank locations in Mendota Heights, Minn., and in Hudson, Wis. So having an indoor option in Fargo is welcome.

“We just get to go and have fun. It gives us bonding time,” Voje said. “I don’t know who’s more excited, me or (Ava).”

Every dog can have it’s day

The first thing you see when you walk in the door is the long wooden dock, mated up to a roomy 40-foot by 20-foot competition pool.

It’s all big enough to handle long jumping, high jumping and speed retrieving competitions required of dogathletes.

Tucked off to the side is a wading pool, where dogs and kids can splash and play. Toward the back of the mid-sized warehouse, is a large, heated hot-tub style infinity lap pool, designed so that dogs can swim to rehab, exercise, or just warm arthritic bones.

A second level above the dock and pool provides an observation area for friends and family.

Saatoff said the facility is open to all, whether they align with groups such as the North American Diving Dogs or Dock Dogs, simply want to come in and train a hunting pup to fetch, or to anyone with a furred friend - from Great Danes to the tiniest Chihuahuas - that would enjoy a warm splash on a cold winter’s day.

“It’s anybody who wants to come in,” Saatoff said.

A leap into a new occupation

Saatoff is a proud Army veteran. For years she had worked as a nurse. However, over time, neuropathy and fibromyalgia made that line of work too painful to continue. She was casting about for a job she could to do when her son brought her to a dock diving event in Bismarck.

That got her thinking about opening an indoor dock diving facility. After all, it combined two things she loved to do: swim, and work with dogs.

(She has four pups of her own, two Aussie doodles, a miniature golden retriever and a Pomeranian.)

She pondered jumping into dock diving for 18 months, but kept the idea to herself.

“I can’t work anymore. I have nothing to do. I love dogs. Why don’t I go for it?” was her decision.

She credits Paul Smith of the North Dakota Small Business Development Centers with helping her create a business plan, a process not as easy as she anticipated.

Saatoff is all in on the venture. She cashed in her 401K retirement account and drew on other assets.

She wanted to make her splash in July, but there were delays in finding a place to house the business. Her landlord then offered her a spot in a warehouse condo unit he was building southwest of Interstate 29 and 32nd Avenue South.

“This is brand spankin’ new,” Saatoff said, and outfitted with floor heating and dehumidifiers.

“There’s still a lot to do,” she said, including the dock changes and smaller punch list items. In the meantime, she works long days, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., to get what she can do herself.

Priced for affordability

For Rocket Dogs’ soft opening, Saatoff’s son has put out a call for about two dozen dock jumping dogs to put the facility through its paces.

She plans to charge $30 for 30 minutes of dock jumping, or $45 for 45 minutes.

“My goal with my prices is to get the middle class,” she said, opting for affordability and numbers, over focusing on higher income clients. “I know what it’s like to be careful with my money.”

As an opening special, she plans to offer half-price memberships for six months or one year. Sign up for a 12-month membership and it will cost $240 a month, versus $480.

There will be open swimming and assisted swimming times for dogs that haven’t experienced the water. And patrons can drop by to wash and dry their hounds for $10 each.

Owners will have to supply shot records for their pets. It’s also best if dogs are socialized to get along with other dogs, but she will arrange times for more aggressive dogs to use the facility, probably in the early mornings or at the end of a day.

“I want to be accommodating to everybody and anybody,” she said, because in the winter, many dogs, particularly those that love dock jumping, “have nowhere to vent.”

Saatoff wants to encourage local law enforcement agencies to bring their dogs in for play time, too.

“They love to run. They love to jump. I think it would be awesome,” Saatoff said.

Saatoff’s looking forward to hosting birthday parties and other events. She’d also like to start a dock diving club for kids, from elementary age to teens. “Let the kids learn by doing,” she said. “I think I’m going to develop a lot of great dog memories.”

Her daughter will manage the business, and she’s already hired another employee.

“I don’t know how successful I’ll be, but I’ll give it a shot,” Saatoff said.

“It’s a lot of fun. I’m in heaven. I can load up my dogs at 9 o’clock and go to work,” Saatoff said. “I’m excited. I’m just so excited.”

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