A DOG NAMED BEAUTIFUL
A Marine, a Dog, and a Long Road Trip Home
An uplifting and unforgettable story of a US Marine, his extraordinary dog, and the road trip of a lifetime.
When US Marine Rob Kugler returns from war he had given up not only a year of his life in service to his country, but he had also lost a brother in the fighting as well. Lost in grief, Rob finds solace and relief in the one thing that never fails to put a smile on his face: his chocolate lab Bella. Exceptionally friendly, and always with – you wouldn’t believe it – a smile on her face, Bella is the friend Rob needs,
An uplifting and unforgettable story of a US Marine, his extraordinary dog, and the road trip of a lifetime.
When US Marine Rob Kugler returns from war he had given up not only a year of his life in service to his country, but he had also lost a brother in the fighting as well. Lost in grief, Rob finds solace and relief in the one thing that never fails to put a smile on his face: his chocolate lab Bella. Exceptionally friendly, and always with – you wouldn’t believe it – a smile on her face, Bella is the friend Rob needs, and they spend their days exploring nature and taking photos.
But then Bella develops a limp in her front leg. It’s cancer, and the prognosis isn’t good. Rob has a choice, either to let Bella go now, or amputate her cancer riddled leg, and see what the next few months would bring.
For Rob, the choice is a no-brainer, and instead of waiting at home for the cancer to spread, Rob and Bella pack their bags and hit the road. Life is short, but the road ahead is long and winding, and as they criss-cross the country Rob and Bella meet remarkable, life-changing men and women who are quick to make friends with this incredible three-legged dog. A Dog Named Beautiful is a book full of inspiration, hope, love, tears, and laughs. Enjoy the journey.
- Flatiron Books
- May 2019
- 304 Pages
“Kugler’s heartful and uplifting story reveals the transformative power pets can have.” – Publishers Weekly
“Engaging and sometimes heart-rending, and it will be a certain tear-jerker for dog lovers.
Love, devotion, and slobbery kisses abound in this heartwarming story of a man and his treasured chocolate Lab.” — Kirkus
“[Kugler] expertly balances his personal journey through past trauma and to finding inner peace with Bella at his side with inspirational insights all readers can appreciate. Kugler’s interactions with other veterans throughout his journey feel like a tribute to our armed forces. This sweet story honoring the bond between animals and their people is a must-read for fans of A Dog Called Hope and Travels with Charley, and anyone open to a good, cathartic cry.”
—Booklist, Starred Review
A New Life on Three Legs
“Can I talk to you in the back room about these X-rays?” the vet asks, and my optimism suddenly does a one-eighty. Nothing good ever needed to be talked about in a back room. We’ve come here for what I thought was a sports injury, and up until now, the prognosis has been nothing but positive.
I leave the waiting room and follow the vet down the hallway to the back of the clinic. Two orange–cinnamon spice teas and a hot chocolate slosh around in my gut. Whenever there are free drinks around, I can’t help but take advantage, and it’s been a long afternoon already in the vet’s office. Bella walks beside me on a leash, her paws clicking on the linoleum. Bella is happy anywhere, as long as she’s by my side. She has been my copilot on so many adventures together.
We reach the back room and I kneel to pet Bella’s silky-smooth fur, starting at the top of her head just above her eyes. I’m the type of person who treats his dog like family. I am not Bella’s owner; I am her guardian and companion. My philosophy has always been that I’ll do all I can to make sure she has a good life on this earth. Bella is always happy, always positive, always smiling, always up for adventure. We need nothing other than food, shelter, and each other’s company. Her ears run between my index finger and thumb, and I play with the tiny pocket in the ear on the anterior side, near where it connects to her head. Ever since she was a puppy, I’ve loved to play with that little spot.
The vet flips on the lights to the X-ray panels, and I look up to see two pictures: Bella’s humerus and Bella’s lungs. On top of the humerus, the shorter bone in the forelimb, sit tiny spiderweb feathers. The bone looks to be growing tiny pieces of itself into the surrounding tissue, and Bella’s lungs appear cloudy with bright white spots, like a marbled sky bracing itself against an approaching storm.
“I’m sorry,” the vet says. “It’s advanced osteosarcoma. It’s the worst news I could give you. Bone cancer. It’s spread to her lungs.”
The words take the breath out of me like a punch to the stomach. I choke up but clench my jaw and hold my composure. Not because I’m too tough to cry. Not because I’m trying to portray some sort of hypermasculine military persona. I hold my composure because I need to focus. I need to keep my emotions in check and listen to every word the vet says so I know exactly what next steps to take. Over the years I’ve learned that when the shit hits the fan, the world stops and I pay attention. If only I had this much clarity from day to day.
The thought of Bella being gravely sick is almost too much to take in. I look down and see this happy dog, her bright eyes and full smile. Bella looks back up at me. She is adventurous, athletic, an endearing ball of doggy love. She is my one constant. She loves me unconditionally when I am broken, when I am sad, when I am angry, when I am wrong, when I have failed. Her tail wags whenever I walk in the door, and over the past few rocky years of my life she has become a wise mentor to me, a Yoda to Luke, teaching me how little is needed in life to be happy, teaching me to be ever present in each moment. This dog has become my best friend, and now I’m going to lose her.
The vet’s brow is furrowed. I look back into her eyes. I understand this must be the worst part of her job. “What are our options?” I ask, feeling my way forward.
“The cancer is aggressive. We can take the front leg. But if you don’t want to take the leg, then we should put her down soon, because she’s in so much pain.”
Put her down? There’s no way I’m going to put her down. Bella means the world to me. She’s stuck with me through everything. She models the components of what it means to be alive—happiness, freedom, service, purpose, pleasure, joy. She prizes the very act of being. No, as long as there are viable options, I will not take this dog’s life. But I can’t bear the thought of Bella being in pain either.
“If we take the leg, how much time will she have?” I ask.
“The cancer will still be in her lungs. The surgery will only take her pain away. So even with taking her leg, you’re looking at three to six months left at most.”
Three to six months.
The news rushes at me like a bullet. Bella is only eight years old. It’s not uncommon for a Labrador to live to twelve, or more. I glance at Bella again and pet her head. Her tail continues to wag. She’s looking up at the vet, curious about what’s causing the gloomy mood. Amputating her front leg is our only option, but that option seems so severe, and at the same time not enough. I ask about chemotherapy but am told that with the advancement in her lungs, chemo is pointless. I know I need to make a decision about the amputation right away, but it’s killing me to say yes. I need time. Time to think. Time to weigh the pros and cons. I ask if I can consider the decision overnight.
Of course. Overnight. Bella and I drive home, and I feed her supper, then cook my own on a little hot plate. I call my family and friends for advice.
“That’s too much money,” says a friend. “I’d just put her down.”
“What kind of quality of life will she have with only three legs?” says another. “Put her down.”
“Put her down,” says a third.
“Put her down.”
“Put her down.”
“Put her down.”
But I can see the life left in this dog’s eyes. No. I won’t put her down. She’s nowhere near ready. I look up information online and see how great results can come from this procedure, although I read a few stories of a short life afterward as well. “We can do this, Bella girl. I’ve got you,” I whisper to her.
My mind works overtime. It seems like only yesterday we got Bella. An ad in a local newspaper caught my girlfriend’s eye. A small-town Nebraska teen with aspirations of becoming a vet had bred her chocolate Labrador and was offering the puppies for adoption. The teen nurtured the litter closely, gave them their needed shots, removed their dewclaws. We drove to the rural community to see the puppies for ourselves. A half dozen pudgy balls of joy romped inside a secure enclosure in the teen’s front yard. They scampered after each other. Nipped at each other’s noses. We couldn’t help but smile. One blue-eyed pup dashed in a rumble-tumble up to us, put her tiny paws up on the fence, and wagged her tail like a helicopter. I picked her up and her tongue lapped my face. She was perfect. But my girlfriend and I weren’t quite ready to make our decision there and then, so we set her down. The puppy ran back to play with the others.
I was set to deploy to Iraq with my Marine Reserve unit in the next few months, and my girlfriend and I concluded a puppy would make a great companion for her while I was gone, perhaps even better company than me. At least you can train a dog. We headed home, thought it all through, and returned the next day, hoping we could remember the exact puppy we’d connected with the day before. They looked like such little clones of each other.
Sure enough, immediately as we walked toward the garden fence, the same blue-eyed pup sprinted over, put her paws on the fence, and shook her rump. Her voice spoke directly to our hearts: “You’re back! You’re back! You forgot to take me home yesterday.” We scooped her up, paid the teen, and climbed back in our car with our new bundle of joy.
Our puppy’s name had to be special. It needed to have meaning, because a dog lives up to the name she is given. When I looked into those big blue puppy eyes standing out against that chocolate brown fur, I was amazed how beautiful she was.
I pulled out my laptop and searched in other languages for the word “beautiful.” Trying my own roots first, I found spéiriúil in Irish and schön in German. Neither seemed a name that fit, or a name that I could pronounce. So I kept searching. Linda, hermosa, bonita—none felt like a proper given name for this tiny being. Then I came across the Italian, bella. I looked down at the little pup and asked, “What do you think of this idea?” She chewed on my computer cord, and I exclaimed with a chuckle, “Bella, no!”
A dog named Beautiful.
Bella it was.
* * *
Early morning on the day after the consultation, I schedule Bella’s amputation. The surgery is set for two days later, so we have a little time left, and that afternoon we go to the park so she can play. It’s a sunny day for Nebraska in early May, warm, and the grass is a vivid green from the spring rains. Bella sits for a moment on the grass and I take her picture, knowing it will be her last picture with all four limbs.
Her limbs have always been so in tune with her surroundings—actually, her whole being has. Right from when we brought her home, I found Bella remarkably responsive to training. She learned everything quickly. To teach her to sit, all I did was make the same gesture a few times. I raised my right hand, closed my fist with my thumb and pointer finger outstretched, and pointed toward the ground. She sat her little bottom right down and looked up. “Too easy. I’m sitting. What’s next?”
My girlfriend and I took her to puppy classes, and Bella learned how to ignore a savory treat on the ground by hearing the command “leave it,” one of the most important things for a dog ever to learn. The command soon worked for anything that needed to be left alone. Cars. Squirrels. A sandwich on the coffee table.
Today she looks intelligent and regal, her head turned to one side, her eyes burrowing forward with intensity and intelligence. She bears no weight on the affected limb due to the pain it causes. Her muscles around the leg are beginning to atrophy. The leg has become nothing more than a painful nuisance. I need to be her voice and take it for her. I walk over, cup her head in my hands, and speak tenderly, trying to explain to her what will happen. “We need to take you back to the vet, Bella. I’m sorry you can’t understand all of this, but hopefully you will when the pain goes away.” I give her forehead a long and loving kiss.
The surgery will cost fifteen hundred dollars, in addition to the three hundred for X-rays I’ve already spent. I’m thirty-three years old and in school full-time, finishing a degree in fire protection technology, although I’m still struggling to find my life’s true passions. I live as simply as I can in a friend’s house that’s being renovated. The walls are gutted, I sleep on a cot, and I cook on a hot plate in the basement. To help make ends meet, I sell photographs off my website and work some general labor gigs, supplemented by my military medical retirement. Bella’s surgery is no small expense for me, and I’ll need to put it on a credit card. But Bella is worth it, I remind myself. I’ll pay anything for her, and I’ll figure out how to pay for it.
On the morning of the appointment, I drive Bella over to the clinic, kiss her goodbye, and let her go into the arms of the vet, who she follows with a limp but with a tail that wags and a face that smiles. I don’t know too many dogs that love to come to the vet as much as this girl. The whole procedure will take eight hours, and they insist there’s no sense in me waiting around, so I head to class and tap my foot, staring at the clock. When class is over, I go home to prepare our room for Bella’s return, and then head to a park and pace up and down on a trail. At last my cell phone rings. The vet tries to prepare me for what Bella will look like so I’m not shocked when I see her.
“She’s not going to look so good,” the vet says. “She’ll be shaved, with staples.”
Copyright © 2019 by Robert Kugler