When Nicola Owst found a Staffordshire bull terrier abandoned and close to death she didn’t think twice about saving him.
But what she didn’t know then was that her new buddy would save her too – by freeing her from her past.
The brave dog would also go on to become a social media star and capture the hearts of dog lovers everywhere.
Here, in an extract from her new book, Saving Buddy, Nicola shares their story of survival, hope and love.
His poor sad eyes were just slits in his bony, bruised face and just trying to keep them open was causing him intense pain. The skin around his filthy, swollen muzzle was pockmarked and livid pink where his fur had worn away.
Blood under his right eye had soaked down his face and neck and on to his body, and his skeletal bird-like legs showed every sinew.
He was barely alive and every movement was agonising for him.
It was April 2009 and I’d travelled from Leicestershire with my stable-owner friend, Sally, and her daughter, Charlie, to collect two unwanted foals from a couple of shady-looking men in a junkyard just outside London.
He was barely breathing – clinging on to life. So I freed the cat box and carefully lifted him out of his prison.
He was some kind of staffy and his terribly scared face showed he’d endured the most dreadful mistreatment. Had he been in illegal dog fights?
He’d been left to die in his own waste. The stench of rotting flesh and faeces was unbelievable. His paw pads were red raw from standing in his own urine.
What sort of monster could leave an animal is such a state?
When I lifted his limp body on to my lap, his legs buckled beneath him.
I gently swaddled him in a towel.
“I’ve got you now, buddy,” I whispered to him. And from that moment on he was known as Buddy.
We set off home but I feared he might not survive the journey and kept saying “Hang in there, Buddy.”
We drove straight to the vet who took one look at Buddy and shook his head. It was the worst case of neglect he’d ever seen.
Buddy was riddled with demodectic mange. The infection had eaten his skin and his weakened immune system meant he couldn’t fight it.
The next 24 hours would be critical. Armed with antibiotics and a treatment for his skin, we went home. I half-filled the kitchen sink with water, added anti-bacterial shampoo and lowered Buddy in.
I gently bathed away the foul dirt and grime as he sat there, placidly.
Bit by bit, his lovely, splodgy brown and black brindle markings became clearer, and the real Buddy started to be revealed.
This was possibly the first tender care he’d ever been given. I talked to him the whole time, telling him what a brave boy he was.
It broke my heart to think about how scared he must have been, abandoned in that crate to die.
Once he was clean, I wrapped him up in a big fluffy towel and patted him dry.
I then cooked him some mini-fillets of chicken and a sachet of rice. I knew if he ate something, he would stand a better chance of making it through the night.
Next morning Buddy seemed perkier. He tried to stand and walk towards me like a wobbly Bambi, but his back legs were too weak and his paws were agony.
I went to Asda and bought some baby socks, padded the soles with cotton wool to cushion his paw pads and kept them on with sticky tape. The next time he wobbled on to his feet, he stayed upright for a few more seconds. It was a step in the right direction.
And I did some research on Staffordshire bull terriers and was reassured to read they’re a lot softer than their fearsome reputation suggests.
I was going through a break-up at the time and, looking back, it feels as if Buddy was sent to give me new focus.
I needed help too. I felt very raw and vulnerable, unwanted and rejected.
The moment Buddy looked at me with those pleading eyes, I knew he wanted me as much as I wanted him.
By healing him, I was healing myself of heartache. I rescued Buddy that day but he also rescued me.
Day by day he grew stronger and started to put on weight, but it was a long process. The raw, pink boy I’d rescued started to sport a summer coat. As I massaged his velvet-soft ears, he’d close his eyes in pleasure and wag his tail.
I didn’t feel alone as I was so unconditionally loved by my little ball of energy.
I had spent so long with loser boyfriends and shed too many tears when relationships had failed. But now I had a fantastic companion who’d be there for me through thick and thin.
I was a manager at a job centre and in July 2009 we got some new recruits.
We were a similar age and got on well and would all go out for a drink. One of them, Jon Owst, was really nice and I enjoyed chatting to him. He was tall with dark hair, lovely blue eyes and a kind way – eager to hear all about my twin passions: Buddy and horses.
We became friends and, six months later, Jon asked me on a date. It was lovely, but I’d gone on about Buddy so much Jon could be in no doubt it was a case of love me, love my dog.
To my surprise he asked me out again and we took Buddy to the park. It was a fantastic day – the start of something special.
Jon was a breath of fresh air and quickly became a new dad to Buddy.
It made me realise how self-centred my recent ex-boyfriend had been. Buddy made me realise life is too short to be with someone who only cared about themselves. In August 2011 Jon popped the question and presented me with a beautiful ring. I said yes, straight away.
We got married on Easter Sunday, 2013. Our wedding was perfect. Buddy had a gorgeous garland of flowers in the coral wedding colours and he starred in many of the wedding photos.
But two years later I was cuddling Buddy and noticed a hard swelling on his back left ankle – the size of a large broad bean.
The vet didn’t think it looked sinister. But I had a niggling feeling it was serious and Jon insisted I take Buddy back to the vet.
He sent Buddy for an X-ray and “to have some cells tested.” I went into panic, worrying Buddy had cancer. Five days after the tests the vet rang. And the only word I heard was “tumour”.
I couldn’t bear it, not after everything we’d been through, after his terrible start in life. Jon hugged me and tried to put my mind at rest.
We went to the surgery. The vet said the tumour was in an awkward place and Buddy needed an specialist.
What if the cancer had spread into Buddy’s leg. Would it mean amputation to save his life?
The op went well. But the surgeon wasn’t 100% certain he’d removed all of the tumour. Buddy had to have radiotherapy and eight doses of chemotherapy.
But how were we going to pay for it? I’d got pet insurance after rescuing Buddy, but with cancer costs rocket and there was very little in the pot.
I was desperately worried. We hadn’t been in our new house long and had no savings. But I’d created a Facebook page called Buddy Dog – The Rescue Staffy, to spread the word that staffies are lovely dogs.
I posted about his treatment and the more I shared, the more Buddy’s friends increased. (He now has more than 26,000 followers.)
Friends suggested I set up a GoFundMe page to raise funds towards the treatment. And, amazingly, within weeks, we had raised the £600 needed.
When Buddy had his final round of chemo it was such a relief. It looked as though he would again be the incredible personality we knew and loved.
But during Buddy’s cancer scare, we found out I was expecting. I had terrible morning sickness and Buddy knew there was something wrong with me.
He’d sit next to me with his head tilted, a worried frown on his face. And I told him everything – as I always had.
But eight weeks into the pregnancy, I woke up and sensed something was wrong. I turned to Jon and said: “I think the baby’s gone.”
A scan confirmed it two days later, I had an operation to have the pregnancy removed. I was terribly upset but knew it wasn’t uncommon. A few months later I was pregnant for a second time – but miscarried again early on.
When it happened a third time I was utterly devastated. Surely there must be something wrong with me?
But the gift of morning sickness was delivered again, in the autumn of 2016.
Because of my miscarriages, I was called in for earlier scans. And when I reached 12 weeks we started sharing our news. I felt so happy and hopeful.
And at 2.44 am on June 23, 2017, Jon and I said hello to our baby son, Toby.
Buddy turns 11 this month. Although he’s still full of energy and fun, I know the years are beginning to catch up with him. He’s starting to slow down a bit, and I recently bought him a pet buggy so, if we’re out on a walk and it starts to get too much for him, he can have a rest without missing out.
Who would have thought that a dog at death’s door who had clearly been mistreated could have a heart of gold and the best nature in the world?
He’s been a real friend, a warm, sturdy body to cry on when I’ve needed one, and a daft clown to cheer me up when I’m feeling down. “Don’t worry, Mum,” I can almost hear him say. “It’s all going to be okay.”