Miss Belle Goes to Washington

The old dog, incorrigible to the end, is heading off to a new life. And I’m getting déjà vu


After living her entire life as a Carolina Tarheel, our beagle mutt is headed for D.C. I don’t know whether to cry or clap for joy.

My then-twelve-year-old son picked Belle out of a forlorn litter of pups, found in the woods near Raleigh by someone who chose to remain anonymous. That was the story we heard from the vet clinic and we swallowed it in one fast gulp, like a fat pill hidden in a hot dog. Belle’s doe-like brown eyes pleaded “take me,” and her distressing life as an orphan kicked our EMS response into red alert. “We’re here, Belle,” we whispered. “Everything’s going to be all right now. You’re safe with us.”

We didn’t feel very safe ourselves, so maybe that’s why we needed Belle. Navigating our way out of a dark marriage and family, we knew what it felt like to be in the woods; we had felt the fear of being abandoned and neglected. So whether we chose Belle, or as dog lovers are fond of saying, she chose us, she entered our new broken family like a salve. Cute, soft, and cuddly, and scampering about with curiosity, she revived us. With sticky licks for everybody, she made it popular to be affectionate again. It was fun to have a puppy.

But we discovered early on that Belle was no ordinary orphan—maybe there isn’t such a thing. The first clues came when we took her to obedience classes, flush with pride and enthusiasm. Despite weeks of treats and praise, of practicing our exercises outside of class, of ample stashes of hot dogs and cheddar cheese, Belle made no progress. I was buffaloed. The trainer was kind. “Look at all of that dandruff down her back,” she would say to me during class. Belle’s clean, short fur looked like she had heavily salted herself. “She’s stressed,” the trainer observed. She was a magician, getting the other dogs to run through tubes, follow the obstacle course, jump hurdles, sit, and come on command. Not Belle. When we played the man-dog version of Red Rover, with the dogs on one side and the owners on the other pronouncing “Come,” Belle looked confused. Something was awry.

I began to read up on beagles, and the news was not good. Disturbing statements appeared frequently, like “they have a mind of their own.” Up to this point, the only kinds of dogs I knew about were expensive hunting dogs with impressive lineages. They were smart, they were obedient, and they were easy to train. In my predivorce life I had been married to a veterinarian, so maybe I should have known better than to stray outside of pedigree. But I had an untested belief that all dogs, like all men, were created equal. Belle would come around. She just needed a chance.

It’s been well over a decade, and Belle has never come around. By now I have decided it’s not just hardheadedness, it’s also IQ. In some ways, she just can’t help herself. No amount of praise or pouting, drills or discipline has had any effect, for example, on her fondness for our soft suede chairs. She’s incorrigible. And while she has all of those good qualities one hears about in beagles—she is sweet, lovable, affectionate, and funny—she doesn’t have the intelligence to override her animal instincts. One look at a human sofa or chair, and the decision has been made. So long, dog bed. 

She also never recovered from her early puppy days in the woods. Something traumatic must have happened out there. For no known reason, she continues, on occasion, to become alarmed or scared. When this first happened, we would look around suspiciously. Accusations flew: “Did you just do something to Belle?” A piercing siren of yelps would erupt for no apparent reason. Later I came to accept it as part of her fragile makeup, and hoped the neighbors wouldn’t think I had pounced on my dog. Her fears have had other strange manifestations. When she recently refused to eat and barely drank, I thought she was dying; this was how our golden retriever acted at the end of her life. I called my son and had a long talk about it. The next morning it occurred to me to change her dog bowls—we had recently gone from plastic to metal. I switched to pottery, and her recovery was immediate.

There have been unexplainable physical ailments. One night I was at a restaurant and got a call from my hip thirty-something neighbor. “Hey, man, your dog is going crazy in your backyard. She’s honking like a goose. You’d better get home fast.” We scrambled to the emergency vet clinic and learned she was showing signs of a collapsing trachea. Did we want to do X-rays and surgery? No, I said. I’m not that kind of dog owner. The next day she was fine.

For the last six years Belle has lived with us while my son went to Carolina and began his career. He and his wife are now moving to Washington; he’s taken a job and is ready to take Belle. His sweet wife, who is innocent and lovely, has faith in the power of love. She’s bought Belle a pink designer leash, spa shampoos, and cuddled her with tenderness. I have hesitated to let our pup go, afraid of the burden she will place on their young marriage. But the newlyweds are confident. Belle’s going.

It seems proper that an orphan abandoned in the woods should have some splendor in her old age. Washington is a good place for a dog to finish out her days, sharing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness with those who love her best. As for me, Belle has written herself into my life as a story, as an allegory of relationships that have tested and tried me. I’ve been entertained; I’ve been exasperated. I came into this relationship with simple hopes, and with the naive idea that with enough practice, Belle would improve. I learned that some things cannot be changed. As I turn the last pages of this story and prepare to close the book, a final illustration appears: Belle walking off the page, not looking back, and that irresistible tail of hers—short and bristly—wagging like crazy.

And that, I believe, is a very good end.