Ugly and Lovable: Learning the True Meaning of Family
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Ugly and Lovable: Learning the True Meaning of Family

When our two boys adopted an abused and mutilated pit bull puppy, it reminded all of us of the true meaning of family.

Two months after our twin sons, Dan and Noah, turned 12, we had a family crisis. Buzzy, our black-and-white cat, began dying. We had rescued Buzz when he was 5 weeks old and he'd been a loving friend -- a boon companion. But now he was 14 and the end was near. When I came home from work one Friday, he was lying beneath the dining-room table, unable to move. The next day the boys and I -- heartbroken -- took him to the hospital. We stroked him on the ride over, and then one of the technicians gently took Buzz from the carrier and into the treatment room. We all knew it was good-bye. I was both surprised and moved by my sons' willingness to confront sickness and death: It showed remarkable maturity and strength. It was also a testament to their deep connection with Buzz. Just as we were getting ready to leave, a staff member emerged from a back room with a pure-white pup on a leash.

The dog was a visual oxymoron. The right side of him was adorable, but the left side of his face looked as if it had melted -- it was all flamingo-pink scar tissue. His head appeared swollen, distorted. His right ear was flopped over itself. His left ear was a jagged stump of flesh a thumb's width high. The back of his lower left lip drooped below his jawline.

As soon as this dog saw us, he started this strange little dance and strained toward us. Noah went down on one knee. With a sudden explosive force, the pup tore the leash out of the technician's grasp and rocketed into Noah, knocking him over. Noah fell backward and lay stretched out as the dog stood on his chest, licking his face without pause. The boys started laughing as Dan reached over and began to pet the dog, who wriggled over to him and lapped at his face. I went to join the excitement and cradled the dog in my arms as he licked my face and neck. When I touched the pup I felt that I had never met an animal with such soft fur. He was a plush toy come to life, as smooth as butter. The boys crowded around and the pup covered us with kisses. We fell instantly and completely in love.

I asked our vet, "What happened to him?" It seemed rather obvious to me that the dog had been badly burned in a fire.

"He was a 'bait dog,' " the doctor answered matter-of-factly.

"What?" I asked.

"He was used as bait for a fighting dog. That's how they teach them to fight. They'll use anything they can get. Poodles, cats, you name it."

"Where do they get them?"

"Strays. Petnapping." He raised the first two fingers of each hand to form air quotes. "'Free to Good Home' ads. Wherever and however they can."

"Where did this guy come from?" Dan asked.

"He was brought into the ER several weeks ago right after a police raid. They found him bleeding to death in a cage. The SPCA told them to bring him here. We didn't expect him to survive."

"Who does he belong to?" I asked, certain that an animal with such charm and personality and with so much affection -- who had been at the hospital for several week -- would by now have found an owner. When the vet told me, "No one," I felt amazingly fortunate.

Then I said to the boys, grinning, "Guys? How about it? Should we adopt him?"

They both agreed without the slightest moment's hesitation.

The vet told us that the volunteer who was fostering him would continue his training -- Oogy was only 4 months old -- and then deliver him to us in about a week. I felt giddy.

After leaving the hospital I considered the uniqueness of the weekend's lessons. While facing the loss of a loved companion, we had begun Saturday morning consumed by sadness, without any indication that anything other than bleakness would be our lot for the day. Instead, we had encountered a totally opposite experience. I knew the boys would appreciate the way in which events had unfolded. It represented a lesson one rarely had the opportunity to illustrate with such immediacy: life going out one door and in another. And then I started thinking about a name.

I laughed out loud. There was no way to deny it: This was one ugly dog. If his face had been a mask, no one would have wanted to wear it. Of course, I knew we could not call him that. We could not name a dog Ugly. And then my thoughts jumped to a term I had used when I was a teenager: "oogly," as in, "Man, that is one oogly sweater." And suddenly, just like that, I said Oogy out loud and knew without a doubt that that was it.

We mourned Buzzy for weeks and to this day we remember him and the love he shared with tremendous fondness. But the gap in our lives was about to be filled in a sudden and decisive way.

Ten days later the hospital volunteer' station wagon pulled up in our driveway a little after 9 a.m. Oogy placed his front paws on the top of the backseat, stared at me, his tail wagging furiously, and began to bark. When I opened the car door he rushed forward like air escaping a vacuum seal, and I scooped him up while he wiggled and licked me unrelentingly. "Hello, Oogy," I said. "From now on, that's you. You're Oogy. Oogy, Oogy, Oogy. Oogy for the rest of your days. You're in our family now."

Oogy's first day with us went quickly, and soon enough it was bath time. I placed the puppy between my legs so I could massage his wounds with lotion as the vet had directed. I began with small, circular strokes to rub the dampened gauze pad over the raw pink flesh that was the left side of Oogy's head. It was as though I were trying to wipe away all that had happened to him.

The blue liquid turned soapy-looking as I massaged the leathery skin. I talked quietly to him the entire time. "Yes," I told him, just as I would tell him every day for those first six months, "you're a good boy. This didn't happen because of you. This does not mean you're a bad doggy, an undeserving dog. We love you very much. You didn't deserve this. Nobody does. You're a lovely doggy. You'll never have to be scared again. No one and nothing will ever hurt you again." Oogy never moved or fidgeted or tried to pull away.

After the wound cleaning, we were ready for the next phase of Oogy's introduction into our lives. Ever since the boys were born, we had read to them after bath time. Now that they were 12 and had their own bedrooms, we alternated rooms. Depending on how tired they were, the boys fre-quently fell asleep in the same bed.

The first night Oogy was with us I read to them in Noah's room. I put a pillow against the wall and stretched out across the foot of the bed. The boys climbed in and got under the covers. Oogy jumped onto the bed and curled up at their feet. I read for 20 minutes and by then Noah was asleep, as was Oogy. I asked Dan if he wanted to go back to his own room.

"Stay here," he mumbled, his eyes unable to open. Then he turned over onto his side and he, too, drifted off.

The original plan had called for Oogy to spend his nights in the seltering confines of his crate. But when the time came I simply could not bring myself to remove him from Noah's bed. Instead, I reached over and switched off the lamp. The picture of the three of them sleeping together that first night, illuminated by light outside the window, where a wind rustled the trees, imprinted itself indelibly in my memory. Two young boys, backs to each other, curling hair against pillows, and a little white one-eared dog between them. Then, exhausted by the whirlwind events of the day, the book on my lap, I drifted off, and we slept until my wife, Jennifer, came home and woke me.

"Hello, Oogy," she whispered. "Welcome to our house."

His tail thumped the bed, but other than that Oogy did not move. The little guy was surrounded by love for the first time in his life, and he wasn't about to give that up for anything.

Excerpted from Oogy: The Dog Only a Family Could Love, by Larry Levin, © 2010 by Laurence Levin. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, New York. All rights reserved.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2010.