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Rene Lynch on 'Oogy,' a dog so ugly he'll run off with your heart

December 22, 2010 |  8:00 am

Oogy_levin When this book landed on my desk last month I quickly glanced at the cover, scanned the back and shoved it beneath a pile of papers. The subject matter just seemed too disturbing, and struck too close to home: I'm still grieving the recent death of my 15-year-old shepherd mix, Buster, a happy-go-lucky dog that I adopted as a puppy after he was found abused and abandoned in East L.A., strung to a fence by a wire.

"Oogy" is the true story of a puppy who was used as "bait" for fighting dogs when he was just a few weeks old, and was so badly mauled and disfigured that he was nearly put down when he was discovered abandoned outside Philadelphia. But the staff at the Ardmore Animal Hospital, which sees this kind of thing all too often, immediately noticed something special about the white dog whose left ear had been torn off, his jaw smashed, the side of his head torn open. Despite everything that had happened to him, he showed absolutely no malice to other dogs or hospital employees. Instead, he eagerly dispensed licks and wag, offering thanks to his rescuers in the only way he knew how. Against all odds -- or common sense, it would seem -- the animal hospital spent hours operating on the dog and fostering him through his recovery. When they were certain he did not pose a threat, the one-eared pup with the lopsided face was given a second chance, and adopted out to the Levin family.

I'm glad I also gave this book a second try, and I suggest it for someone who might be facing Christmas without a beloved pet.

The book is written by Larry Levin, an attorney who, along with his attorney wife, were on the treadmill of attorney life when they received a call that would forever change their lives: It was the "stork," delivering the news that the couple had been approved to adopt two newborn boys, twins they would later name Dan and Noah. With parenthood comes introspection for Levin about what it means to be a father, and what it means to be a family.

The author was only 3 when his 5-year-old sister died of leukemia. His grief-stricken mother dealt with it by pretending that the child never existed, refusing to speak of her. Levin's father was gruff and remote.

The twins bring indescribable joy and upheaval, a cycle that would be repeated years later with the arrival of a four-legged troublemaker. Whether it's by chance or fate -- the reader can decide -- Levin and his sons arrive at Ardmore Animal Hospital one morning in 2002 for a grim task: Their elderly cat  must be put to sleep. Once there, they cross paths with the one-eared dog who immediately greets them like they're his long-lost family. You know what happens next. They name him Oogy, a loving play off the word ugly and a gentle nod to the dog's deformities. Oogy is a handful from the get-go -- he's often found sleeping atop the dining room table, and a bungee cord must be used to secure the refrigerator. (Yes, the dog figures out how to open the refrigerator and fetch food for himself.)

At first, Oogy is believed to be a pit bull. Later, he's discovered to be a Dogo, a rare breed known both for its ferocity as well as its gentle devotion to his family, and especially tolerant of children. Levin believes Oogy's penchant for the dining room table stems from his desire to position himself high so that he can better watch and guard over his family.

Oogy's triumph -- not so much the lap-of-luxury life that he now enjoys, but his ability to overcome cruelty -- has led Levin to begin training Oogy to become a therapy dog, particularly for those who are wounded and disfigured. "I believe that Oogy will be able to help those in need to understand that scarring, disfigurement, and trauma, whether physical or emotional, do not have to define who they are.... That no matter what has been inflicted upon them, love and dignity are attainable," Levin writes.

Speaking of the writing: it can be uneven. We're given almost mind-numbing details about an average morning in the Levin household, but more personal issues -- why is Levin's mother's ill at ease in their home? -- seem to be given short shrift. Doggie hijinks are, inexplicably, limited to a few pages. Perhaps there was a fear of turning this tale into "Oogy & Me," and that's a shame. Oogy has loads of personality and charm to spare, and it could have added more levity to the book.

"Oogy" is not quite a stocking stuffer. It's best given in private to someone who would welcome a bittersweet reminder that we don't own our pets, they just give us the opportunity to accompany them through their all-too-short lives, to love them, protect them and spoil them rotten along the way.

And that's a wonderful gift.

-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Photo credit: Grand Central Publishing