Why a Veteran and His Remarkable Dog Traveled Across the Country

When his dog was diagnosed with cancer, Rob Kugler left his life behind for an epic road trip.

Posted in , May 14, 2019

Why a Veteran and His Remarkable Dog Traveled Across the Country

Chase your dreams. That’s what was written in the letter Rob Kugler’s brother, Mike, left him.

Mike, who served in the military and died in Iraq while working as a contractor, left behind letters for those he loved. Kugler, who idolized Mike and joined the Marines largely because of him, took his brother’s final words to heart.

When Kugler returned from Iraq, he set off to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. But when his marriage and acting work fell apart, he wondered whether he had truly followed his brother’s advice after all.

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Then Bell, Kugler’s beloved Chocolate Lab, was diagnosed with cancer.

The veterinarian said she wouldn’t live longer than six months. Bella’s diagnosis provided clarity for Kugler. He packed a bag, put Bella in the car and hit the open road. Their road trip lasted 18 months and was the trip of a lifetime—not only for Bella but Kugler, too.

“She seriously had a wonderful time…for the last year of her life,” Kugler told Guideposts.org. “That was something I was really happy about, that I felt like I'd done right, was just spending as much time as I could with her until she passed away.”

The road trip gave Bella the chance to do all her favorite things: ride in the car, swim and meet new people.

“Seeing new things and exploring is what the veterinarians [guess kept] Bella alive so long,” Kugler said.

In October 2016, Bella died in Kugler's arms.

Kugler waited to feel something—his best friend in the entire world, the creature he’d spent every moment with for the past year and a half, had died.

“And when I stood up and she was just laying there and no longer existing, I had a moment of, ‘Well, what is this? This is it?’” Kugler said. “I felt cheated.”

Just at the moment when his spirits sank, the wind lifted a nearby group of yellow and gold leaves off the ground and into a swirl around Bella’s body. Kugler felt Bella’s calming presence and a renewed hope in a spiritual afterlife.

It was one of many instances during the road trip that Kugler refused to write off as just a “coincidence.”

While on the road, pictures of him and Bella started going viral and the pair built a following. He’s been able to use that following to raise thousands of dollars for worthy causes and plans to continue searching for ways to connect people, especially in regards to his two greatest passions: dogs and the military.

Purpose wasn’t the only thing Kugler found on his journey. He also met and fell in love with Kristen, a fellow dog lover and adventurer. Today, they are making a life together in the Pacific Northwest with their two Border Collies, Jasper and Max.

“I'm trying to continue to live my life and continue to [grow] from the lessons that I learned from Bella,” Kugler said. He hopes people struggling with grief will find hope and inspiration in his story and in his new book, A Dog Named Beautiful

“We really owe it to them to continue our life,” Kugler said. “They have crossed onto that next step, and it's just us here that have to carry on, and we don't have to carry the burden of their pain because they don't have it.”

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