In 2020, as the world dealt with the horrors of the pandemic, I found comfort in being with my family, watching over my grandma, and hanging out with Camilla, the golden retriever I’d had for the past nine years. But that October, everything changed when she passed away unexpectedly from a tumor on her spleen that had gone undetected. The pain from losing her was unbearable. I couldn’t look at pictures or videos of her, and every video of dogs coming across my social media feed would make me cry. I never thought I could open my heart to having another dog.

Until I met Belle.

My boyfriend and I had been talking about getting a dog. Initially, I thought about another golden retriever. But to this day, photos and videos of golden retrievers still make my heart ache, and I know I could never get another one; it would feel like I was replacing Camilla. So we discussed what breeds we both liked that would fit our lifestyle, whether we wanted to adopt a puppy or an older dog, the cost associated with having a pet, and how we would split the responsibility of training a dog. We weren’t in any rush to adopt; we’d know when the time was right. 

In mid-July, as I was scrolling on Instagram, a photo of an adorable black and white furball popped into my stories. The owner had surrendered the dog to the Marin Humane Hopalong foster program in Oakland. I messaged Alex Sanchez, the rescue’s dog director, to inquire about the puppy. 

The first photo that the author, Azucena Rasilla, saw of Belle.

Alex told me that the pup’s name was Belle, and she ended up at Hopalong because its former owner had other dogs that were bullying the puppy. The owner was devastated to let Belle go but knew it was the right thing to do.

Belle was going to be with a foster for the short term and was getting ready to be spayed. I arranged for my boyfriend and I to meet her after the procedure. Throughout that week, I watched the foster’s stories on Instagram and learned that Belle is a curious pup who loves to chew on ice and play with other dogs. 

Fosters are pivotal in helping to give animals a temporary home as they await their forever home. They help free up valuable space at local rescues and shelters—Oakland Animal Services (OAS) could see as many as 3,200 dogs this year alone—while helping the animals acclimate to a home environment and avoid the stress of a shelter.

The day we met Belle, she was still woozy from having gotten spayed, but I fell in love the minute I held her. I also received clear signs that I should adopt her: My previous dog Camilla’s middle name was Belle, and I later found out that the puppy’s former owner also shared my name, Azucena. 

Two days after meeting Belle, we were ready to sign the adoption paperwork and take her home. 

The author’s previous dog, Camilla Belle, with her favorite toy, a plush lamb stuffy. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

Adopting a dog, whether a puppy or older, requires much work. My boyfriend was nervous because he’d never owned a dog, but I already knew what to expect. Belle is three months old and needs to be potty and crate-trained; she’s also teething and likes to chew on things to soothe the discomfort. Before heading to pick her up, we went to a local pet store to grab the needed supplies: a bed, a harness, a leash, poop bags, and chew toys. 

When we arrived at Hopalong, Alex handed over a file with all of Belle’s information: She was 6 pounds, a Lhasa/Shih Tzu mix, spayed and microchipped, with up-to-date vaccines and rabies shots. A week later, Belle needed a second dose of DA2PP, a vaccine to protect her from distemper, adenovirus type 2 (hepatitis), parvo, and parainfluenza, all deadly diseases for dogs. After that, she would be able to go on walks safely. 

Since bringing her home, teaching her new habits and keeping a consistent routine have been more enjoyable than challenging. I’ve relied on what I learned training Camilla a decade ago, and it’s been working out so far. 

When Camilla was a puppy, she wasn’t crate trained. At the time, my grandma insisted on teaching her to roam around the house freely while I was at work and she was at home. In retrospect, grandma trained Cami a lot more than I did. 

Camilla and the author’s grandmother during the summer of 2020. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

With Belle, my boyfriend and I have found a good rhythm of splitting responsibilities, and the puppy has picked things up quickly, too, like heading to the front door when she needs to use the bathroom. (Puppies generally need to go in the morning, after meals, naps, or playtime, and should always be taken out before leaving them home alone in their crate for an extended period.) 

Figuring out what to do with a puppy when you leave the house is a significant challenge for most adopters. Although I primarily work from home, I still need to go out to report, attend meetings or run errands, and one thing I’ve learned is that playpens with open tops are not ideal for crate training. Belle learned to jump out of hers about a week after we adopted her. We have since put an enclosed and gated metal crate in our home office, which she’s free to go in and out of while we are home. 

Another challenge is figuring out where to leave Belle when we go on vacations. Is boarding better than having a pet sitter come to the house? We’re still trying to figure that out, but what we’ve learned is that boarding can range from $60-$100 per day—or more—depending on your pet’s needs. 

Belle patiently waits to go on a walk. Credit: Azucena Rasilla

A few days after we adopted Belle, we brought her along with us on a week-long trip to a lake. Although we broke her newly started routine, she quickly adapted to being away from her new home. She got to socialize with other humans and another dog and had a blast, even though she had to stay behind at the rental house when we left for the lake.

Adopting Belle and learning her personality have helped tremendously with my grieving since my grandma’s death. After her passing, I was diagnosed as clinically depressed. I went through difficult months navigating not only grief but the healthcare system and how difficult it was to get into therapy and have anti-depressants prescribed.

Belle has taught me that my grief can co-exist with the love and happiness I experience with another dog. 

Shelters and rescue centers desperately need fosters and more people looking to adopt. The easing of the pandemic caused some to give up their “pandemic pets,” and the end of the eviction moratorium means that more Oakland residents will face the difficult decision of surrendering their beloved pets. Meanwhile, as encampments are cleared, unhoused residents, particularly the elderly or sick, will also have to turn over their pets in hopes that someone else can love them as much as they do. 

Although having a pet comes with many responsibilities, the rewards outweigh them. 

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.