Once again, we have entered a season of grief and loss, one we share with the recent death of my service dog, Bella.  You have surrounded me, and my spouse, Micah, with warmth and love, care and concern, cards and flowers.  We know that we do not grieve alone, that the loss of Bella is your loss, too.

And so, today, I would like to share something of her life with you, by way of a joyous celebration of her life, in words more than ritual, though there will be a time for that in the coming weeks.  I have often been asked what the life of a service dog is like, if she ever gets time to play, or just be a dog.  The answer is resoundingly yes, she has, and much, much more.

Bella began Puppy Early Learning School at NEADS at eight weeks of age where she learned basic obedience skills before graduating to the prison pup program.  Under the guidance of a professional trainer from NEADS, Bella learned her service dog skills from an inmate, named Corey, during the week and a weekend puppy raiser, named Erin, on the weekends.  Her final stage of training came after NEADS identified her match, me, and proceeded to ensure that Bella had the skills and disposition to match my lifestyle.  This involved taking her to church, where she was exposed to loud organ music, and taking her to the fire station, where she was exposed to big trucks, flashing lights, and sirens.  All this, because I was a minister serving a church with an organ and volunteering as a fire chaplain.  We were then successfully matched when she was 18 months old.

Bella was my constant companion, with me 24/7, and so the life she lived was mostly my life as well.  She did all the routine things with me: shopping for clothes and groceries, going to the post office and the doctor and the dentist, staying with me in the hospital, going for x-rays, getting haircuts, going to church, going through the drive-through, going to restaurants, the movies, concerts, and the theater.  She lived in 5 different states: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois, Nebraska, and Texas.  And she visited many more: Pennsylvania, Missouri, Florida, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, Wisconsin, Virginia, Iowa, Louisiana, and D.C.  Never mind all the states she traveled through, whether by car or plane or bus.

Bella lived an adventure-full life, filled with many experiences and opportunities most dogs never have.  She took a steamboat ride down the Mississippi River, rode in a Stagecoach pulled by mules, climbed the sandy cliffs in a jeep in Nebraska, attended a cat show, toured a chalk mine, participated in a virtual church talent show, rode in amusement park train rides, played mini golf, rode in a real golf cart, went to Zoos and museums, including the National Air and Space Museum where she got to see a real moonrock, and went to many craft shows.  Bella strolled through Pride celebrations and a couple of state capitol buildings, attended (small) protests, sat at attention for 3 gun salutes and watched calmly as tanks rolled by in Memorial Day parades.  Bella loved the outdoors, whether running through a dog park (those bone-shaped swimming pools in Texas were pretty cool), watching a campfire, or attending a carnival just for dogs in Nebraska.  She loved camping or glamping, whether in a cabin or a tiny house.  She attended church egg hunts, explored Carhenge, climbed rock formations in Toadstool, and checked out a real sodhouse.  Bella went to a day-long meditation workshop (the gong sound bath was her favorite part), had her photo taken with Santa, went on drive-through safaris, and hung out in arcades while her family played skeeball and air hockey.

Most of all, Bella loved people, especially children, and was happy to be petted or walked around on her leash.  She had lots of opportunities to be with people – at church, book clubs, ministers’ retreats, vegetarian society dinners, and lots of meetings like PFLAG, Pride youth group, GLAD, General Assembly, Center Institute, and more.  She especially loved visiting with her extended family and doing anything that involved water, like going to the beach, or the lake, or the river, or the kiddie pool.  She loved to dress up for Halloween and wear family pajamas for Christmas.  Some of the most fun was had at the hospital where I worked as a chaplain resident.  Late at night, when the tunnels were empty, I’d open up my scooter, full throttle, and we’d “jog” through the halls together.

As much as I miss her, and her family and friends miss her (that’s all of you, because Bella made friends everywhere she went), we can rest easy knowing she had a wonderful, adventure-full life.  We can celebrate the joy and comfort and smiles she brought to people everywhere she went.

Good job, Bella.  We are proud of you, we are grateful for you, we love you, and we miss you.