Oogy - The Third Twin
When our dog Oogy was about ten weeks old and weighed 20 pounds he was tied to a stake and used as bait for a Pit Bull. The left side of his face including most of his ear was torn off. He was bitten so hard a piece of his lower jaw was crushed. Afterward, he was thrown into a cage and left to bleed to death. He was found by police when they raided the facility and taken to an emergency service operating out of Ardmore Animal Hospital, in a suburb of Philadelphia. There, Diane Klein, the Office’s Director of Operations, simply refused to allow the dog to die. Dr. James Bianco, the head of the hospital, operated for several hours to staunch the bleeding, replace the lost blood, and suture the gaping meat that Oogy’s face had become. With the help of everyone on the staff somehow, beyond any calculation of the odds, Oogy survived.
The records from the ER have long since disappeared. As a result, I don’t know which police raided the facility or where it was. I don’t know how they learned there was a dog fighting operation there or what happened to the people who were busted in the raid. I can never know why the dog that attacked Oogy did not kill him. I can never know why the keepers simply did not execute him with a bullet to the back of his head and put him out of his misery. I am regularly overwhelmed by the incomprehensibility of circumstance. If any of these occurrences had changed, this story would not be written.
Not long after this occurred, my sons Noah and Dan and I took our 17 year old cat Buzz to AAH for what would be his final visit. The staff had just gathered Buzz in when this pup on a leash came trotting out from the back of the hospital where the doctoring gets done, ready to go for a walk outside. He exuded such joy that he seemed to shimmer and dance. He was pure white except for the left side of his face, which was swollen, raw pink scar tissue, as though it had melted. His right ear was flopped over the top of his head; the left ear was a jagged stump a thumb’s width high. You would not put on what he looked like for Halloween. He was as smooth as butter and covered us with kisses. We fell instantly in love with him.
Life goes out one door and comes in another. As Noah said not long after Oogy came home: “I really feel bad about what happened to Oogy, but if it hadn’t of happened he wouldn’t be here.” “This is one of the happiest dogs I’ve ever met” Dr Bianco told us. “I can’t imagine what he’d be like if half his face hadn’t been ripped off.” Diane took Oogy home for several weeks to make sure he was safe with kids, to house break and crate train him. Dr. B thought Oogy was a Pit Bull, which made my wife, Jennifer, somewhat apprehensive, but Dr. B assured her, “This dog doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.” Jen said she was concerned that the dog might bite someone. Dr. B looked at her and said, “This dog will never, ever, bite anyone.” Still, on more than one occasion, people who were told Oogy that was a Pit Bull refused to let their children near him. The first company we called to install an electronic fence would not do so once they asked what kind of dog we had: they were afraid if Oogy went through the fence they could be sued.
Dr. B estimated that Oogy’s adult weight would be about 45 - 50 pounds. By the time of his first check up six months later, Oogy weighed 70 pounds. When we walked into the animal hospital for that visit, one of the women who work there exclaimed “That’s a Dogo!” “What’s a Dogo?” I asked. She laughed and said, “I’m not sure.” We learned that the Dogo Argentina is bred in that country to hunt mountain lion and boar. A Dogo can weigh up to 110 pounds and can cost thousands of dollars. Dogos hunt in packs. They are bred to run great distances and are capable of amazing bursts of speed. They run alongside their prey, hurl themselves against it to knock it down and then swarm it. Oogy can run - actually, it is more like leaping than running: he thrusts himself forward in great bounds, all four legs in the air simultaneously like a Greyhound - about 30 miles an hour. (He was running alongside the van so I clocked him). His hind leg muscles are so strong that, when he sits and the muscles bunch, his butt does not touch the ground. He looks something like a Pit Bull on steroids. He has a neck like a fire plug to protect him when he closes. A long rib cage curves back from a barrel chest to a Whippet’s waist where the pistons that are his upper hind legs vertically repeat the curve. There are black splotches under his short white fur like a Dalmatian but fainter, more like shadows of spots than spots.
While Dogos are ferocious hunters they are also loving, loyal family pets. Aggression has been bred out of them so they can function as a pack.. In Argentina there is a saying: “A Dogo won’t lie At Your feet, it will lie on your feet.”Oogy absolutely craves physical contact. Now almost six years old, Oogy is 85 pounds of solid muscle, but he does not know this and sits in our laps or, if we are on the floor, on us. If I am on the couch, Oogy will sometimes climb up and, leaning his body against the back of the sofa, sit on my shoulder like some parrot hallucination. When I am standing there are times he simply comes up and leans his head against my leg. When he is content the left side of his muzzle twitches like an Elvis impersonator; when he is happy he chuffs like a steam engine. One of the traits of the breed is that they fully accept anyone their family does. Oogy is as comfortable around the boys’ friends as he is with the boys themselves. At the same time, while I have no proof, I have no doubt that if he sensed we felt threatened a completely different animal would emerge. Dr. B said that he would not tell me the things Oogy had endured before he was rescued, but there are moments when Oogy’s past washes over him. One day Oogy stuck his head out of the door as I was kicking a stone off the patio. As soon as he saw the kicking motion, he ducked back into the house. There was no mistaking the look of fear in his eyes. If Oogy’s hips are touched or jostled when he is sleeping he comes up growling. Even before he is fully awake, as soon as knows where he is –or isn’t- the growling stops. I have met other abused dogs who have a sensitivity concerning their hips. It must be from getting kicked there. Oogy hated the crate from the start, which puzzled me because I had been told by people with crate-trained dogs that their pets loved the crate and felt secure in its confines. He would bark and bark whenever we put him in. When he was about a year old we hired a trainer who also happened to be an animal “whisperer”. After we introduced her to Oogy she sat on the floor for a full five minutes talking to him. We could not hear a word she said –or anything Oogy said back to her for that matter - and when the trainer lifted her head her eyes were brimming with tears. “Oogy want you to know” she said “how much he appreciates the love and respect you have shown him.” Then she asked about his daily routine. I started by showing her where he slept in the crate. She said immediately, “You have to get him out of that box”. “Why?” I asked. “Because,” she said, “he associates being in a box with having his ear ripped off.” It was a smack- myself-in-the-forehead moment. Oogy never went back in. For my sons, then 12, it was like having a little brother. As with any little brother, it could be an annoyance. Whatever they did and wherever they went, there was Oogy. If they played outside he went for their ankles. If they went outside and left him inside he barked incessantly and clawed at the door. If they left the property, as soon as I let him outside Oogy would run their scent to the edge of the yard and sit staring up the street after them. He would sit there as long as I let him. When they wrestled he threw himself into the mix. When they played ping pong he dashed back and forth with the ball barking furiously, and when the ball hit the ground would rush scoop it up before one of the boys could. He had no idea that he was not one of them. He would sleep with one boy one night and the other the night after that. Around our house he became known as The Third Twin.
In short order, we did not see the scarring except through other people’s eyes. When Oogy rode in the car with his head poking out of the sunroof or a window, people often stared in astonishment trying to grasp the duality of what they were seeing. One side of his face looked normal and the other side looked like that of a gargoyle. As Oogy grew, the scar tissue spread. He could not completely close his left eye, so it wept constantly in an attempt to lubricate itself; his lip was pulled up and back in a perpetual grimace, exposing some of his upper teeth. From the one side he looked like a Crocodile Dog. Dr. B said Oogy was in constant pain because the scar tissue had distorted his facial muscles. So, when Oogy was a little over two years old and had stopped growing, Dr. B rebuilt Oogy’s. In a 3 and ½ hour surgery Dr. B first removed all the scar tissue, which left a hole in Oogy’s skull the size of a softball. He took grafts from inside Oogy’s legs, then pulled the flap of skin from Oogy’s neck up and joined it to the skin on his muzzle. There is a small hole where Oogy’s left ear used to be. On the right side of Oogy’s head, his coat is feathered behind the ear. On the left side, where the skin of his neck has been pulled forward, the feathering is just behind his eye. There is a thin, ragged line from the top of his skull to the underside of his jaw where his face e has been joined together. Because the part of his jaw bone that had been crushed was removed his facial structure altered. The flesh and muscle where he was bitten atrophied from lack of blood flow, so the top of Oogy’s skull slopes downward while the right side of his face has been pulled slightly upward from the surgeries. As a result, Oogy looks a tad lopsided. Viewed straight on, he looks like a photo that has been torn in half and not quite properly aligned before being taped back together. In addition, because the crushed piece of jawbone was removed, there isn’t enough jaw for his lower lip, so a portion of the lip droops and collects dust and dirt. It is second nature to us to pull the detritus off his lip when we sit with him. I told my sons that when they tell their children about Oogy, they will remember this routine act of kindness.
Other than this Oogy looks like any other one-eared dog. I have asked him on numerous occasions what he would have been like if he had both ears. He refuses to speculate. An essential part of this story is that Ardmore Animal Hospital has never taken a dime for anything they have done for Oogy: not for the surgeries, not for toenail clipping, not for medicine, not for tests, not for implanting a chip in his back to be scanned if he runs away. I did not ask for such an arrangement. When I went to pay for the first check - up I was simply told, “Oogy’s a no-pay.” They saved him, we gave him a home, and we each look after him in our own ways.
Several summers ago, Oogy had the first of the two surgeries to repair his ACLs, which he injured merely running in the yard. The surgeon told me Oogy could not run or climb stairs or jump and to confine him to a small room for six months. I told the surgeon that Oogy would shred the door if I tried that, so he told me to do the best I could. I took Oogy home, put him in the dining room, and went to work. When I returned Oogy was sleeping on the dining room table. That night I put a piece of plywood on the stairs to block access to the stairs and went up to bed. Minutes later Oogy was licking my face. I took him back downstairs and slept on the living room floor with him. I slept on the floor all week, until the boys returned from camp. They have been sleeping downstairs with Oogy ever since. In the spring following the surgery, Oogy’s body rejected the steel plates that had been implanted to hold his leg together and he developed an infection. As a result, his leg had to be opened up a second time to remove the plates. When I went to pick him up following that surgery, the Technician who brought Oogy out volunteered, “This is a great dog. I really love him. He’s got a wonderful temperament, he’s affectionate and he’s smart.” I responded off-handedly, “That’s kind of an oxymoron for a dog, isn’t it.” The Tech looked directly at me. He said, very seriously, almost angrily, “You don’t understand. I see hundreds of dogs each month, and every once in awhile there is a really special one. And you have him.”
When I related that story to Dr. B he said, “But we already knew that.”
Walking with Oogy is like walking with a mayoral candidate. He wants to meet everyone. Because Oogy was abused by both humans and dogs, strangers are invariably surprised that he loves animals and people as much as he does. When people first encounter Oogy they invariably ask if he is safe; I tell them he has licked two people to death. Neighbors we encountered early on told me they were afraid of Oogy because when they passed by the house he would bark and trot parallel to them along the curving edge of the front lawn, and his size and looks can be intimidating. I fact, I make it a point to let him into the yard whenever there are strangers in the neighborhood. Anyone contemplating a visit to our house when we are not there is going to take a look at Oogy and start thinking about another house. When we are out and about it is difficult for people not to notice a large white dog with one ear. As people hear the story of what happened, they can’t help but be taken in by Oogy’s dignity and serenity. The word “sweet” is used to describe him more than any other. A simple truth is that everyone –everyone- who meets Oogy falls in love with him. I have often wondered what it is about Mr. Happy Dog that that resonates with people. To a certain extent, each has his or her own connection. Some see in him the survivor they see in themselves, an indomitable spirit in the face of adversity. Others, emotionally damaged, who yet hope still to be loved, see another kind of optimism. Some appreciate the second chance he has had, just as they hope that they will get theirs. But there is a common element, too, and it took me a very long time to realize that what appeals to everyone is that Oogy is living proof that what we all know is lurking out there, the awful unexplainable, the tragic loss, the seemingly insurmountable occurrence, can be survived with love and grace intact, and that there can be happiness on the other side of horror. I have heard it said that you can tell a lot about a person from their pet. I don’t know what Oogy says about us. We do not operate on some elevated level of kindness. We did not do anything that a lot of other people would not have done. We just happened to be in the right place at the right time. There was no deliberation in the decision to take Oogy into our home. We felt lucky to be able to. I do think that the boys relate to Oogy on another level, though. One of their favorite stories when they were little was how the pets they shared the house with then, a Bernese mutt and two cats – all rescues- came to be in our house with them. Perhaps the story reassured them, for they, too, are adopted, that love is not created nor defined by how the components of a relationship come to exist with each other. The boys have also always held a special affinity for the halt and the different and those who have to struggle to survive. I think that this comes from the same place.
I had a toy when I was little that used three pencils clamped into place, and, when a lever was cranked, the mechanism’s arms would rotate, creating a lacey geometry of intertwined circles. Our family’s relationship with Oogy is something like those circles. I think that, on some level, every day we try to atone for what happened to him, just as we try to atone for our own mistakes, both real and imagined. We reassure him that he is a good dog, that what happened to him was not his fault and had nothing to do with him, which is something that, at one point or another, we all need to hear. Unfettered and grateful love, the knowledge that we are appreciated for who we are no matter what we may do or have done and the sense of protection that we provide to one another flows like a current between us, nourishes us and ties us together. Oogy’s name is a derivative. The first day I was told we could adopt him I was thinking, “This is one ugly dog.” Then I went to a variation of that from my youth, “Oogly,” and his name followed immediately. Two years after we named him we learned that Oogy is the name of the Ghost Dog in the film, “The Nightmare Before Christmas”. This is not inappropriate. Oogy lived past the day of his death and was reborn.
On a recent Saturday afternoon Oogy was curled up on the couch asleep, his head in my lap, and I was thinking about how his life is now, as opposed to the way his life had been before: daily acts of unspeakable violence for no comprehensible reason until the ultimate, searing horror. Had he sensed he was dying as he lay in the bloody puddle of his life disappearing? Was he conscious when the police put him on a rubber sheet and took him to the hospital? He could not have comprehended the significance of the siren wailing the journey as his head was beaten with hammers. Oogy went to sleep in a world consumed by terror and pain and awoke surrounded by angels in white coats who put out the fire in his head, who were kind to him, who stroked him gently and talked softly to him. Instead of people who tortured him, he was surrounded with love and kindness and healing mercies.
I realized then that Oogy probably did not know that he had not died and gone to heaven. So I told him. I said, “Listen pal. You’re may not believe me, but it only gets better after this.”