On Beauty and Belle
By Kelly McDonald
“it’s no wonder that her name means ‘Beauty’
Her looks have got no parallel…
Very diff’rent from the rest of us
She’s nothing like the rest of us
Yes, diff’rent from the rest of us is Belle!”
“Belle” from Beauty and the Beast, Howard Ashman - 1988
Beverly and I aren’t ‘dog people.’ Where we grew up, in rural Idaho and Utah, dogs were farm animals, home guards, and strays. For a boy walking to school, a dog on the loose was like a rabid wolf. I learned to give a wide berth to dogs when I was young, especially when riding my bicycle. Although Beverly’s parents kept dogs on their dairy farm, their place was in the barnyard, never crossing the threshold into the warm family home.
Once, when I was about 6 years old, my family visited a distant aunt who kept a furry Pekingese as a house pet. When we arrived, my aunt handed me a dog treat to give to the little animal to streamline my befriending process. Rather than eating it right away, the dog ran off into the next room, carrying the treat in her mouth. Later, after a full day at play with the dog, I stood on the front porch with my family, saying our goodbyes to my aunt. The little dog walked up to me and dropped the treat at my feet. I was flabbergasted that this little dog seemed to possess the human qualities of friendship.
But television during my boyhood years only reinforced this idea. In the TV programs of the 1950s, there was a boy-and-his-dog series titled Lassie. In most episodes, Lassie, the heroine dog, performed just the right action to save Timmy’s life or trigger some other miraculous event. I watched Lassie faithfully, every week, on our old black-and-white television. No doubt it formed the myth in my young mind that some dogs, especially collies, were more like furry humans than instinctive canines. Disney movies, starring talking dogs, also made their own contributions to my internal stories.
After this indoctrination, I incessantly pleaded for my own companion dog, but my parents held firm to their ‘no dogs’ policy, and when Beverly and I began to hear similar requests for dogs from our own children, these earlier family traditions took precedence. That was until Belle.
Andy is our youngest, and Belle was his dog. Andy rescued her as a puppy from an animal shelter in 2008. Although we didn’t allow pets in our family when the children were growing up, this little dog was cute and she adored Andy’s attention, so we reluctantly agreed to let her stay in the basement, where Andy then lived.
Belle came into our home at just the right moment in our family timeline. Andy was struggling with finding himself, and his depression had soon led to substance abuse. What we thought might be just a phase of growing up stretched into several years of anxiety-ridden concern for his future. We supplicated and sweet-talked, cried and cajoled, prayed and preached. But nothing seemed to make a difference. As Andy’s life fell into deeper isolation, Belle became his mainstay in providing a link to us and to the happier times of his life.
As Andy slipped further into his depression and other difficulties, he lost sight of the many important possibilities of what his future could be. However, through all of this, he never gave up on his love and concern for his little dog. Perhaps his interest in Belle, when he found her in the animal shelter, was an unconscious effort to connect with some level of responsibility in his life. Even in his worst of times, Andy was still concerned that Belle was well taken care of. He walked her, played ball with her, and generally doted on his pet, when all other activities in life seemed too distant for him to reach out for, because of his depression. In hindsight, I believe that this lingering connection with Belle ultimately kept him from slipping completely away, and started to lead him back to life’s reality.
Like Lassie rescuing Timmy, Belle was metaphorically able to pull Andy far enough out of the burning building of depression. Through her emotional bond to him, others could finally reach out and give him the aid that he needed in what seemed to me to be a true example of dog-human friendship. Andy slowly began to socialize with others again. He reconnected with a former baseball teammate whose wonderful younger sister eventually became Andy’s wife.
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Did my aunt’s little furry dog really bring me back the treat in friendship, or was it simply coincidental? Did Belle really make a difference in Andy’s life, or was it simply an example of the anthropomorphic tendencies that we humans are wont to foist upon the animal kingdom, especially our pets?
The generally accepted theory of dog evolution begins with the domestication of friendly wolves. What seems like cute dog antics was actually the evolved behavior of wolves living on the fringes of early human groups. What we interpret as dog friendship originated from the wolf’s survival instinct of tail wagging and panting, which dissuaded early human hunters from killing their wolfen neighbors. If this is true, then Belle was simply responding instinctively to us, to keep her food and water dish full, and to persuade us to bring her inside the house during cold winter nights. I don't know much about dog evolution, nor do I think I can perfectly explain dog behavior. But here's what I do know.
I know that Belle spent many long hours lying by Andy’s side, being nothing more than just Andy’s dog.
I know that Andy had the most difficult challenges ahead of him. But with the help from many, including Belle, he overcame them.
I know that Belle was my friend. She wagged her whole body when she greeted me. Maybe, in some ways, Belle rescued me as well. In spite of our early upbringing, Belle and our other children’s family pets have finally turned Beverly and I into dog people after all.
I know that our family, especially Andy, is better off in our life’s journey, because Belle journeyed with us. Whether she journeyed out of dog love, or simply because of evolved wolf-dog behavior, the result was the same.
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Ten years later, Belle suffered from ‘dog arthritis’, making it difficult for her to run and play like she once did. Pain meds for dogs kept the condition under reasonable control. But Belle’s pain finally increased to the point that her quality of life was greatly diminished. With a veterinarian’s help, Andy relieved Belle of her suffering. Her ashes now lie buried beneath a recently planted tree in her honor, in Andy’s backyard. He teaches his children that there is still a little bit of Belle that will always be with them through their ‘Belle tree’.
When God dispatches another angel, to assist me or a member of my family, I hope that beautiful cherub will also be sporting four legs and wagging a tail.