One Year With Belle
Last year, almost to the day, I was driving home from an appointment, listening to a podcast, and thinking about everything that needed to be done before I logged off of work the next day and left town to stand up for one of my best friends at her wedding. I was driving in that way that your eyes are on the road but your mind is elsewhere because you have driven that path so many times, it’s habitual and instinctive. There’s a light at a small intersection that is green 90% of the time I’m driving down it, but on that afternoon, it turned yellow, and I started to slow down.
Fate, destiny, the universe, what have you, must have been there that day, because seconds before I reached a full stop, a brown dog darted out into the road in front of my car. It was off the road again in another instant, but I knew that if I didn’t pull over, that poor thing would get hit. If not soon, then after dark, when someone would be speeding down that road and wouldn’t be able to see it.
So I rolled slowly up to the light and turned right, pulling off the road a ways and leaping from the car. The dog had turned right too, and was twenty feet away, staring at me like I might just be a monster, with a minivan coming straight at it. I waved at the driver as I called for the pup, and she moved out of the road and into the grass, still far from me, but seeming to think I might just be okay.
It took maybe two minutes to convince the creature to approach, calling it with an excited voice, clapping my hands encouragingly, whistling to draw its interest. Eventually twenty feet was reduced to two, and I reached out slowly to grab the collar around its neck, thinking I’d find a tag and drop it off.
When my fingers curled around the collar, the dog flipped over onto its back like I’d whipped it. This is when I saw first, she was a girl, second, her ribs were too pronounced, third, she had scars across her body–some old, some new–and, fourth, there was no tag on her collar.
I called my partner, informed him I’d be bringing a loose dog home, and that he might want to make sure our dog Jinx was inside, because I’d bring the lost puppy into the backyard. He did just that; it’s something we’d done for around five dogs we’d come across loose before, some of whom became frequent visitors. This seemed no different except that we had no idea who to call about this poor thing.
When we got her back to the house, we gave her water and some food, thinking that would calm her, and then watched her run around our backyard like she owned it, trying to get Jinx to play. Our vet was closed, so we couldn’t check her for a chip with them, but with a quick call to a local emergency clinic, they said they could check her for a chip.
So back into the car I went with the cute little creature who kept rolling to show me her belly and seemed completely disinclined to hurt a fly, though she had the look of a bully breed to her face. Fifteen minutes later and the vet tech comes out to the car, asks me to hold the dog while she scans for a chip and finds absolutely nothing. No chip, no way to contact her owners, no way to figure out where she came from.
The vet tech mentioned that she looked young, only about a year old, and underweight for her size. We talked about options–where could I bring her to find her owners, what my next steps should be, any basic questions the tech could answer on sight, then got back in the car and drove home.
With her poor manners and our worries about how our older dog might react to have another dog in her home, we kept them apart, and I slept with the puppy in the guest room. She spent the entire night trying to crawl inside me, wanting to be held, wanting to be near my face, as if she was worried I would disappear. With the lack of sleep and a stray I had no intention of keeping, I took the following day off work, got a vet appointment scheduled, and started trying to figure out what to do with her, calling the county animal shelter and the local humane society, hoping they’d be able to take her in and find her owners, especially as we were meant to go out of town in less than 24 hours.
At the time, we were still in COVID protocol, so when I brought her to the vet appointment, I wasn’t allowed to go in with her, and I had to tell the vet tech that I’d literally picked her up on the side of the road, that I had no idea what shots she’d been given, or even her name. They needed a name to start her chart, so I looked in the backseat, where she was laying belly up in a mix of fear and desire for belly rubs. Belly seemed appropriate, but didn’t feel like a name, so I told them, “Let’s call her Belle.”
I helped them get Belle out of the car, since she seemed loathe to leave it, then watched as she disappeared inside to get a full check-up.
Two hours later, the vet herself came out and asked for her full story again. I gave it, and the vet told me, “Congratulations, you adopted a dog.”
Over my protests that I couldn’t, the vet told me that Belle had tested positive for heartworm, an incredibly fatal disease for dogs, had roundworms in her waste, was 35 pounds and underweight, and hadn’t been spayed. They’d given her the full battery of vaccines but hadn’t been able to get a look at her ears because they were very sensitive, and when they thought to let her hang out with the vet’s two golden retrievers to calm down, hadn’t reacted well. This was baffling to me, because I’d been ruffling Belle’s ears constantly, and she’d had no problem with Jinx besides being over enthusiastic and having poor manners like she’d never been socialized. The vet gave me a bill that made my eyes pop and then said that I needed to decide about how to handle the heartworm soon, but that we had time to talk to other vets and get second opinions.
The next 12 hours were a blur of trying to find someone who could watch Belle while we were away over the weekend. Jinx was already taken care of; she’d be tended by our house sitter, but we couldn’t subject them to a dog who needed someone with dog-experience. Miracle of miracles, we found a family who could watch Belle for the weekend, and might even consider adopting her! So I brought her over, explained the medication she’d need to take for the roundworm, and raced home to pack in a fury for the weekend.
We got updates from the family over the next few days about how Belle was really getting along with their own dog, and how she was so cute and such a sweetheart, and thought that this might be the best case scenario… but when we picked her up on Sunday afternoon, the family had decided they couldn’t take her on. So she came home with us, and we once again kept Belle and Jinx separated. In the morning, we woke up to find that Belle, unspayed and about a year old, had gone into heat, likely her first. Off to our own vet to see what they recommended for heartworm and to see if they could spay her sooner rather than later. Their recommended heartworm treatment would be less intense and just as effective, but they couldn’t spay her until she was out of heat, and they didn’t want to spay her until the heartworm treatment was over either, to reduce her stress to better her chances of surviving the disease.
I’m sure at that point it only took two or three days to realize we were keeping her, but at the time, it felt like months of my life were consumed with trying to decide what to do about Belle. She was hyper, clingy, untrained, and ill, and Jinx had thrived being the only dog in the house. She ate so fast that we had to buy her a special bowl to slow her down, and drank enough water that she needed to be outside every hour. Clicker training didn’t work, and she seemed determined to drive us to insanity with her need to be in our laps at all times, but she worked her way into the fabric of our hearts with her puppy dog eyes and the knowledge that her numerous scars were healing, her ribs were showing less and less, and she lived life at 110% always.
I look back and think, remember when I thought she was light brown? Her coat is a deep brown with a white blaze on her chest and chin, her toes all socked as well, but she’d been outside so long she’d turned dusty. Her manners have improved. We only have to remind her to not run full speed into Jinx about once a week instead of every five minutes. She doesn’t try to leap out every door that opens, she can be called back from the fence when she’s chasing our neighbor’s dog, and she takes naps by my feet while I work. She still lives life at 110%, snoring with the vigor of a hibernating bear, and she’s topped out at 58 pounds, her muscular legs taking about 10 pounds each of that, I swear. She still wants to snuggle when she can, but will also wander off to curl up on her bed or lay in the sunshine, and doesn’t leap to her feet to make sure I’m not abandoning her every time I run into the kitchen. She had some behavioral training, and some of it stuck, but still pulls when she’d on the leash as if she must see around every corner and always be at the head of the pack. Even Jinx has warmed to her, taking delight in chasing her up the stairs to get her away from some random item Jinx has decided is hers, or trying to tackle Belle herself in the backyard.
A year on, she’s ours. We can’t imagine giving her up.