Nearly 3 years after her death, I’m finally ready to write about Bella. Bella was my heart-dog. Dog people know what that means. Although we all love every one of our dogs, sometimes we’re lucky enough to have a truly special dog in our lives. Bella was one of those. She was the dog that everybody adored – even people who didn’t like dogs. Even dogs who didn’t like other dogs liked Bella.
I’d always wanted a dog, ever since I could remember. Growing up, my family had cats but my true love was dogs. Since I couldn’t have one of my own, I took care of other people’s. I can’t remember how old I was when I started working for a neighbor who bred and showed Doberman Pinschers.
As soon as I was able to, I adopted a dog. It turns out that wasn’t until I was well into my 20’s. That first dog was Bella. Since my life is now dedicated to working with dogs, it’s strange to think that I didn’t have a dog of my own until I was already an adult.
Once I decided I was ready, I began my search. My only criteria was that I wanted a white dog since all of my furniture was light and I’d put a lot of money and effort into decorating my place. It’s funny how quickly and drastically our priorities can change.
The day I found Bella I was walking the aisles at the local animal shelter, scouting for a white dog. I did find one but then quickly ruled her out since I suspected some fairly serious behavior issues. I continued my search and came across a run with 2 dogs in it. One was a bouncy adolescent yellow lab, the other a black and tan coonhound mix. As I stood in front of the gate, the lab bounced in front of me, googly-eyed, wiggling and mouth gaping open happily. The black and tan mix was cowering at the back of the run. I found an attendant and said I wanted to meet a dog. I brought him to the run and the attendant automatically started leashing up the lab. “No – the other one. I want to meet the other one.” He asked me if I was sure. I was sure. The other one was Bella. Her name was Belle in the shelter. She was terrified, emaciated and missing huge patches of fur. The attendant walked us out to the back, handed me her leash and disappeared back into the building. I tried walking Belle around a bit but she was only interested in going back inside – she spent her time with me pulling as hard as she could toward the building’s back door. She completely ignored me and I knew she just wanted to get back to the familiar confines of her kennel.
I left the shelter but couldn’t stop thinking about Belle. My boyfriend and I returned to see her again. This time we sat in a big room and Belle was free to roam and check us out if she wanted to. She wasn’t very interested in us but she was busy. There was a big box of toys in the broom closet and Belle methodically removed one toy, brought it to a spot in the room, deposited it, then went to get another toy and did the same. She formed a neat pile of toys in the middle of the room. She wasn’t interested in playing with them. It seemed as if she’d given herself a job.
I adopted Belle and went about getting her healthy. She’d stopped eating during her last few weeks at the shelter, which explained her bony frame. She’d been there for months after being transferred from a rural shelter, where she’d been for months before that. Belle was approximately 1.5 years old and as far as I could tell, she’d spent at least half of of her life in shelters.
She was starving. I put Belle on a puppy diet and fed her 3x/day. She would throw herself against the shuttered kitchen doors while I prepared her meals and I’d brace one foot against the bottom of the doors to prevent her from blasting in before I was ready to feed her. She quickly gained weight and, to my surprise, grew a few inches taller. Belle’s fur grew back and became glossy and full. I changed her name from Belle to Bella. Years later, I embellished her name to become Bella Fortuna. I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was to have her in my life.
Bella was what people call a “soft” dog. Although I’d had many jobs working with dogs, I didn’t know a lot about how they think and learn. Bella was a stressed out girl but she had unbelievable tolerance. I ignorantly subjected her to countless overwhelming situations when she could’ve justifiably bitten me or someone else. But she didn’t. The only time she ever put her teeth on me was during her last year on earth and I’m still overwhelmed with guilt remembering it.
Bella and I were walking on the Northwest Branch trail, which banks sharply to a creek on one side of the trail and a steep hill on the other. A woman with 5 small dogs (leashed) came up the trail toward us, barking and lunging. The woman fell, dropped the leashes and the dogs charged toward us. I pulled Bella behind me to protect her and Bella bit me softly on my left knee. I hadn’t realized I was pushing her toward the creek-cliff edge. Bella must have been terrified and did the only thing she could – she bit me. Her teeth were dull and she didn’t bite hard but I felt terrible when I realized how scared she must have been to have done that.
Bella’s favorite thing, hands-down, was to run off-leash in the woods. She was a different dog among the trees and she transformed into a silly, sprinting, exploring hound. I took her walking on the trails as often as I could, which I count as one of the many gifts Bella gave to me. She taught me to savor and appreciate the outdoors.
I can’t write about Bella without mentioning her soulful howl. She didn’t make a sound for her first 3 or so years with me. The first time I heard her bark was in the middle of the night – she spotted a raccoon shimmying up a downspout on the building next door. I had to laugh. It was as if she simply could not silently witness that raccoon’s ascent – a raccoon broke her vow of silence.
It was another middle-of-the-night a few years later and we were both fast asleet. A fire truck siren blared and she began to howl along with the siren. She was still asleep and she was howling! It was so wonderful and astonishing that I began to cry, praising and petting her. After that she would howl whenever fire trucks went by and I loved hearing her every single time.
Bella was about 10 years old when she started coughing at night. At first intermittently and then progressing until she coughed every night like clockwork. The vet found a lump in her throat and diagnosed it as a cancerous tumor. Even though I had pet insurance I knew I would not subject Bella to traditional treatment. She was incredibly stressed by vet visits and medical procedures and I felt that surgery and/or chemotherapy would kill her before her cancer could.
Instead, I pursued Chinese herbal therapy, acupuncture and Tellington TTouch for Bella. I made it clear to all of her caregivers that my only concern was minimizing her pain. Amazingly, Bella lived another 2 years with very little deterioration in her health. She continued to run in the woods, howl, eat and do Bella things. Then she began having difficulty getting up after lying down. There was something wrong with her shoulder that the vet couldn’t identify – she guessed that the cancer was spreading. Bella began dragging her paw when she walked and the top of her toes would become bloody and raw. I started putting a bootie on that one paw for her walks.
Now this part may sound a bit loony but I’m so glad I did it: I contacted an animal communicator. Bella was extremely stoic and I was worried that she was in more pain than I realized. The communicator told me that Bella had tremendous dignity (not surprising news to anybody who met her) and she didn’t want to upset me once she became unable to hide her suffering.
Bella’s health slid slowly and steadily downhill over the next month. Nothing dramatic but she was slipping. She resisted going for walks and she didn’t want to lie in the sun the way she used to. She was pooping in the basement every night. I started to suspect that Bella was hanging on for me. I started to realize how incredibly selfish I was to keep her alive simply to avoid dealing with her loss. I made the appointment and cried. I struggled with my instinct to emotionally distance myself from her since I knew she wouldn’t be around for much longer. I forced myself to stay present in my love and appreciation for Bella. Several times a day I’d lie on the floor facing her, stroking her grayed muzzle, singing “You Are My Sunshine” and trying not to cry. I didn’t want her to feel my sadness.
My sister drove Bella and me to the vet’s office for that final appointment. We were set up in a treatment room like we had so many times before for Bella’s acupuncture treatments: A cushy dog bed, a bowl of ice-cold water and a blanket for me to sit on. The vet’s assistant brought in a bowl of leftover donuts from their staff room and placed it in front of Bella. She ate half a jelly donut, then grabbed another but only took a few bites. I realized I’d made the right decision. Bella had to have been feeling pretty crappy to not want donuts. The vet asked if I was ready and Bella spread herself out on the bed. I laid on the blanket facing her, stroked her muzzle, sang “You Are My Sunshine” and said goodbye as she slipped away.