A Chocolate Labrador with a graying snout gazes just beyond readers, appearing alert and ready for action. Her deep brown eyes are focused and clear, making her appear soft, wise and majestic. She is hungry to see and know and experience the world. The dog crouches on the shoulder of a grinning man, the joyful lines around his eyes revealing a fierce loyalty and a profound love.
Meet Bella and former Staff Sgt. Rob Kugler.
In “A Dog Named Beautiful”, Kugler documents their journey together, beginning from their first meeting in 2007 to when Bella was a puppy. Readers follow Kugler and Bella as they develop a relationship and navigate through life’s many challenges, including military deployment, illness, heartbreak, depression and loss.
After Bella is diagnosed with advanced osteosarcoma and estimated to have only a few months to live, she loses a leg but gains a new life when Kugler takes her on a cross-country adventure. Over the course of 18 months, far beyond the vet’s projections, Kugler and Bella zigzag across the U.S. They meet new friends and visit old ones, all while weaving a web of community and support. They learn along the way how to truly live.
“I was just able to go and be with my dog, and it turned into something bigger,” Kugler said in a phone interview. “The story itself manifested into something that was making a positive impact, and it all happened organically.”
The former Marine says he imagined writing the book for the whole world. His story, after all, touches on so many timeless and universal themes. It is not just a book for veterans or for people who like dogs.
The book is also about the human condition, healing and acceptance, love, loss, identity, belonging, family and finding a sense of meaning. It is about the struggle to find one’s own place in the world, and to live a life with greater purpose.
For Kugler, writing the book was tough. Working with a collaborative writer for two years, Kugler struggled to decide which stories and memories to include because he wanted to tell it all.
Some parts were exceptionally challenging to write, but he says others seemed effortless including the section about his brother, Mike, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. While working one night at his sister’s house, Kugler says he wrote from 6 p.m. to 10 a.m. He had always wanted to tell that story and, as it formed into words and took on a shape, he found it to be cathartic.
Through moments of great honesty and vulnerability, Kugler urges readers to live an authentic life. Aiming to satisfy social expectations and standards of success comes with no promise of purpose. He advocates for living without regard to others’ expectations, and following one’s own unique path that yields most meaning and joy.
About his own experience, he said, “What we did was serving a purpose. It may not have been a traditional job but I felt like what we were doing mattered.”
By foregoing the traditional path to conventional success, Kugler and Bella were out, making their own road.
“We were just living. Life became a lot more free and fun,” he said.
But even as Kugler and Bella were focusing on living, they were constantly facing death. In experiencing a series of difficult personal losses, and anticipating another great one, Kugler cultivated a sense of respect for that experience.
“Death is a powerful, powerful thing,” he said. “If you have the chance to get close enough to it, and observe it, it can widen your perspective.”
Kugler’s experiences with death profoundly affected his manner of day-to-day living. With Bella and their growing network of friends, Kugler found a way to live a life that fulfilled him.
Kugler is committed to honoring Bella’s memory by living authentically and remaining fully present in his own life. She taught him to do that while she was alive, and he resolves to continue cultivating and maintaining that intentional practice after her death.
His guidelines for living well?
Be a part of the world; do what fuels and fulfills oneself while people can. Build relationships everywhere; stay open and receptive. Give, share and accept love. And most definitely have contact with animals.
Because animals don’t care about social status, net worth, or job titles, they can free us of consumerism and greed, and the related pursuits that drain our energy and attention, while dampening a zest for life.
“We are all connected as living beings,” Kugler said. “We should live in a way that helps us interact with [animals] regularly.”
Kugler continues to live by this philosophy with his two rescue dogs, Jasper and Max. Bella will always remain with him in his heart and will continue to live on in the pages of the book.