Marine veteran Robert Kugler traveled with his dog, Bella, across the country and throughout the East Coast after doctors told him that Bella's bone cancer would kill her within a year.
Now, 16 months after that notice, Kugler and Bella have proved the doctors wrong and are still moving together and making the most of what time she has left.
Kugler was getting ready to graduate college on the GI Bill in 2015 when he heard the news that Bella had bone cancer. A May 2015 amputation of Bella's front left leg bought her some time, but veterinarians were still pessimistic about her chances. That's when Kugler decided that he wanted to give her a proper send-off.
"I just was kind of looking at her, and just imagining her being gone when I came home from work," he told WATM. "I just said, 'You know what? Let's take off for a little while.'"
Since that decision, Bella and Kugler have been traveling together around the country. Like Kugler, Bella loves being in nature.
"We were in the Adirondacks, in upstate New York," Kugler said. "That has been some of our best nature time together during this period. ... Our hikes in the Adirondacks are probably some of my favorite times that we've had together, like near Lake Placid."
Bella, who Kugler adopted in 2007 with his then-wife, is great with people and is known for enthusiastically greeting almost anyone she meets.
"Bella's still very independent," Kugler said. "She wants to meet new people, but she's also just very curious about how they smell, if they have food for her. 'You got food? Who's got food? Do you have food for me?' She gets a little spoiled."
This has allowed Kugler to meet and help encourage people he wouldn't have connected with otherwise.
"We meet a little girl in a wheelchair that just falls in love with Bella before she even realizes that she has three legs. Bella stands up, and the girl is like, 'Oh my gosh, she's like me,' " Kugler said.
As Kugler describes it, he and Bella are just, "Out exploring the world with my dog, and encouraging people to get outside and drop their social barriers and their boundaries, to just live on this tiny blue speck together as one."
While Bella has done brilliantly on their trip, staying active and outgoing despite her cancer, Kugler says that traveling with Bella has helped him nearly as much as it has helped her.
"When I'm with her, and I'm paying attention to her, I'm outside myself, and I'm focusing on giving her the best life, I feel at that point in time that I am the best version of myself," he said. "That is one of the reasons I like really spending time with her and doing our thing."
Kugler is overjoyed that Bella has been able to fight for so long and has helped so many people, but he keeps people updated on her progress in his Instagram feed where he acknowledges that Bella is still facing death.
Our adventures in the western slopes were a great refresher of what we love to do and see. Get out into the wild, be a little wild, and meet a few more wildlings along the way. Now, today's adventure begins. We're on our way back to Ft. Collins to visit with Vets at CSU Animal Cancer Center for a consult for the CT scan. The plan is to actually get 2. One, focused on her mouth to see exactly where the cancer is and how far it's spread. The second, a full body scan to see if she's healthy enough for treatment. Though I'm not abandoning hope, I am prepared to hear the words "there's nothing we can really do." See, Bella started coughing recently. It's a cough that starts from the chest and ends with a hack. Usually it doesn't produce anything. This morning, and one other time last week, she actually hacked up some bloody phlegm. Again, my first and utmost priority is her quality of life, her comfort, and her happiness. We will be okay, as we have each other. Obviously I won't have her in the flesh form forever, but she'll have me by her side until the moment she closes her eyes for the last time. Again, I'm not abandoning hope, rather preparing for reality. I'd like to share a perspective that helps me with the grief associated with death. What can keep my spirits up and prevent me from being a blubbering indecisive mess. See...impending death isn't the "worst news." Bella has lived an incredibly adventurous and joyous life that should be celebrated. The end shall not define her legacy. Death is a chapter in all of our books, but definitely not the last. It is this perspective, that allows me to appreciate every day with her and to walk into CSU today without the fear of losing her, because I never will. She is mine, and I am hers, forever.
Hopefully, Rob and Bella have a lot of great adventures left together. But Bella has made a lasting impact on plenty of people either way.