A Dog Named Beautiful
An interview with former Marine, author, and now a Northwest resident, Rob Kugler
Former Marine Rob Kugler lost his brother while they were both serving in Iraq. He returned to his hometown in Nebraska to begin healing his heart and reintegrating with society when he got more devastating news. His beloved chocolate Labrador named Bella had cancer. It was osteosarcoma, a notoriously aggressive and deadly cancer. After they amputated her cancerous leg, doctors said Bella would only survive about six months before the cancer claimed her.
That’s when Rob and Bella hit the road for the life-altering journey he chronicles in his book, A Dog Named Beautiful: A Marine, a Dog, and a Long Road Trip Home. The pair piled their belongings into their 4-Runner affectionately named “Ruthie” and left their midwest roots to explore the country.
Together, Rob and Bella covered 43 states in 18 months, taking pictures in front of iconic landmarks, visiting friends from veterans’ organizations, and exploring lakes and rivers with true Labrador zeal. Living and playing across the continent, Bella survived a year longer than doctors had predicted.
Rob and Bella drew a worldwide social media following. Now readers are laughing and crying their way through Rob’s heartbreaking yet ultimately uplifting book, published this spring by Flatiron Books. While touring the country in support of the book’s launch, Rob took time to talk to Spot Magazine about the special bond he’s formed with a nation of dog-lovers, the new life he’s built with his girlfriend and their adopted Border Collies he affectionately calls “the boys,” and the reasons he chose the Pacific Northwest as his new home.
Spot: You and Bella covered the country and visited some pretty great places, but Oregon and the PNW called to you in a unique way. What about the culture and recreation and dog environment influenced your feelings about the region?
The endless opportunities to find back roads in the national forest, hiking and biking trails, mountains, lakes and riverbeds far from people, where we can exist as if we are the only people on earth. All mixed with the ability to come back into town and walk through Main Street to be greeted with smiles and to stop at a storefront to lap water from a dish set outside, or even lay under the picnic table outside at a brewery…that’s what got me. That’s what I’d been looking for. I need a place where people and their animals can coexist.
Spot: You've settled in the Hood River area? Is that right?
Yes! Kristen, the boys, and I technically live across the Columbia in a small community called Underwood, Washington, but we call the entire gorge our home. We found a quaint little rental property that we call our “mountain cottage.” It’s modest at 950 s.f., but we rent nearly an acre surrounded by lilac bushes and towering pines of varieties I need to educate myself on. Wild deer and turkey are frequently spotted roaming through the neighborhood -- more mascots of the community than wild woodland creatures. I dream of owning a property such as this someday.
Spot: Now that you're living here, at least part-time, how does the reality compare to the fantasy of living and playing here?
Honestly, the reality far surpasses any fantasy I had about the Pacific Northwest. I had seen photos of rocky coastlines, mountain bike trails, and banana slugs, but nothing compares to walking through the temperate rainforest in the Olympic Peninsula.
Spot: You have two dogs now, right? Remind me. I think they're Border Collies? What does life and recreation look like for you and your little pack?
That’s right! We have Max and Jasper, both Border Collie rescues. Max -- two this July -- came from a home in southern California where he was tied up in a backyard by someone who couldn’t handle his energy. Jasper -- estimated at three -- was a stray from southeastern Oregon who went through a couple homes looking for someone who could handle managing his epilepsy. Both of the boys are incredibly athletic, yet Max needs the longer play sessions, longer trail rides and runs than Jasper. Both of them will ride on my paddleboard, but neither are as stoked as Bella to get out into the middle of the water, as I’ve learned they’d rather chase birds along the shoreline. Border Collies are not an easy dog to keep their physical needs met, but I believe that the area we live in makes it so much easier to give them the freedom to be exactly who they are.
Spot: You tell your story of your connection to Bella in such a uniquely moving way. Readers truly get a sense for the depth of your connection with each other, and especially the way a bonded dog and person can communicate with and fully understand each other. I got a sense that you were putting words to what many of us experience but can't articulate. Have you had some surprises or unexpected insight from the outpouring of experiences people have shared with you?
I believe that the biggest insight I’ve discovered through sharing this story, is that many people think that they are alone in their powerful connection to their animals. “I thought I was the only one that felt that way!,” I’ve heard and read on several occasions. I often reply with “Not even close! There’s an entire community of people who feel just the way you do, who understand how strong that bond is, and there are people out there who have been through nearly your exact experience, no matter how unique it may seem. So, if anyone is reading this and battling with a pain that you believe no one understands, know that you’re not alone, no matter how much it may feel that way.
Spot: We like to think we're especially pet-friendly here [in the Pacific NW]. Now that you've been around the country, tell us the truth. We can handle it. Are we really unique?
Hahaha. You can’t handle the truth!!
Jokes aside, I would say that there are definitely quite a few pet-friendly havens throughout the country, but there is something to be said about breweries and wineries with outdoor patios that allow and encourage dogs to join their human families. I’ve noticed a great deal of avid trail dogs, trained well enough to be off leash yet sit and be leashed up when prompted. Many people take the time, effort, and cost to seek help in training their dogs so that everyone can live a more peaceful and fulfilling life together. I see a lot of well trained, happy dogs, and a lot of owners who have taken the time to educate themselves on what their dogs need to stay that way. After all, most trainers will tell you that they don’t train dogs, they teach people. I’d say that most of the people in the Northwest are well taught in all things dog. I’ve got a lot to learn myself, but I’m honored to do so right here in the beautiful place I now call home.