Can I talk to you in the back room about these x-rays?”
When the vet asked him that question, Rob Kugler knew something was terribly wrong with his 8-year-old chocolate Lab and best friend, Bella. “Nothing good ever needs to be talked about in a back room,” he notes.
On that day in 2015, Kugler thought Bella was suffering from a sports injury. It turned out that advanced osteosarcoma, an aggressive cancer, had attacked her leg and lungs. His options: End Bella’s life or have her leg amputated — with the possibility of spending three to six more months with her.
“Bella was my soul dog. When I looked into her eyes, I knew that whatever made her her was the same thing that makes me me. I’d never experienced that with animals before,” he says. “That broadened my horizons past humanity. Her loyalty, the unconditional love that she gave, was something that I haven’t experienced in any other relationship.”
Most people would probably (and rightly) see the cancer diagnosis of their best companion as an ending, but Kugler saw it as a chance for a fresh start.
At the time of Bella’s diagnosis, Kugler was a divorced 33-year-old Marine Corps veteran pursuing a degree in fire-protection technology and crashing on a cot in a friend’s home. He made ends meet by selling photographs and working odd jobs to supplement his military disability pay.
He was also processing the loss of his older brother, Mike, who’d died in 2007 when his unit’s convoy hit an IED in Iraq.
“If you’re familiar with the hero’s journey — where you build your hero up, throw rocks at them, and then they fall — well, I felt like I was on the bottom, and I didn’t know how to climb back up,” he remembers.
“I’d kind of fallen out of everything that I was involved in. I’d had hope for the future, and then I didn’t, and I didn’t want to stay at that level,” Kugler explains. “So I thought that the best way to take charge was to go off with Bella and do our thing and not pay attention to what everybody said that we should do.”
Bella underwent the amputation surgery, and after some recovery time, Kugler loaded up his Toyota 4Runner and the pair hit the road on what would turn out to be a life-changing adventure.
Committed to Service
A natural storyteller (he once had some minor successes in acting), aspiring shutterbug, and talented community builder, Kugler documented his and Bella’s adventures on Instagram, sharing his insightful, honest feelings about subjects ranging from his personal struggles with depression to Bella’s last days.
The touching posts created a supportive online community, but Kugler made a point to meet up with people in real life, too. “Even though I was connected to people digitally, it was so easy to feel like I was alone,” he says. “So I popped on digital networks and told people where I’d be. Folks came out and we met, recharged, and remembered that we’re more than just ourselves.”
Sometimes the meet-ups were about hanging out and shooting the breeze over beverages; other times they were fundraisers for animal and veterans’ charities. (Kugler continues to do these events today in his travels with his new dogs, Max and Jasper.)
Serving others — via the military, volunteering, or the caretaking of Bella — has always been important to Kugler. “As human beings, it’s easy to be concerned with ourselves and what we’re doing or going to do, and I think that can make life harder,” he says. “When we become a part of something bigger, we can really see how much of a community we are as human beings, and I believe that helps us through our own struggles, too.”
Kugler was initially surprised that so many people tuned in to read about his travels with his effusive companion, who insisted on living life fully despite her terminal illness. “The more I shared what we were doing and the more I started talking about the people and other dogs that we met, the more messages I got from people telling me, ‘I thought that I was the only one who felt this way,’” he says.
“I realized that a lot of people are looking for honest expressions about how to prepare for losing their dog or human companion and how to cope with the loss once it happens,” he adds.
“What I’ve experienced is that death teaches us to celebrate life. When death is near, nothing else matters other than the time that you have alive with those you love,” he notes. “You stop taking the days for granted because you see that we don’t have them forever.” After surpassing her prognosis by more than a year, Bella passed away on Oct. 28, 2016.
From Fear to Freedom
To more widely share Bella’s inspiring life and the lessons she taught him, Kugler has taken their story of love, hope, and tears beyond social media and chronicled it in a memoir, A Dog Named Beautiful: A Marine, a Dog, and a Long Road Trip Home.
In the book, he talks about his lifelong search for purpose and what too often kept him from finding it. “One of the biggest things is societal norms and pressures,” the Broken Bow, Neb., native explains. “I’m from the Midwest and it can be hard for some people to see doing anything beyond a trades job, farming, or ranching. I’ve gotten a lot of ‘Hey, Rob, when are you going to get a real job?’
“But it’s interesting that when I worked multiple jobs, attended school full time, and was in the Marine Reserve simultaneously, no one was like, ‘Hey, great job on all your hard work,’” he says.
“What I’ve learned is that if I’d listened to people’s opinions about my life, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he explains. “I wouldn’t have gone on a year-and-a-half-long road trip with Bella, explored the majority of the country, met so many people, broadened my horizons, and changed my perspective many, many times.”
And those travels changed his life. “Bella and I seemed to live as free as anyone has ever lived,” he notes. “Perhaps that freedom allowed us to learn to live outside the confines of our fears and live instead under the big open space of possibility.”
His advice for those seeking more meaning in their life or work? “If you’re doing something today and think you want to be doing something else, give it a shot! It’s never going to happen if you never try,” he says. “You’ll learn things regardless, and even if you don’t find some big Wow, this is why I’m here moment, life is about learning and experiencing the journey.”
These days, when he’s not on the road exploring the country or enjoying adventures with his two adopted border collies, Max and Jasper, Kugler lives with his girlfriend in Oregon. He’s once again excited about his present and future.
“I’m still here. I’m happy. I’m finding a new purpose,” he says. “There’s a lot of life after death.”