Heaven the Smiling Shelter Pup Overcomes Her Fears and Is Crowned World's Cutest Rescue Dog
Jackie Rakers was scrolling through Facebook on her lunch break in February 2019 when she first spotted Heaven — then a scared 5-month-old rescue pup in need of a foster home — and fell in love.
"I saved her picture to my phone and just kept looking at it. And by the end of my lunch break, I had emailed the rescue," the 30-year-old purchasing associate from St. Charles, Ill. tells PEOPLE. Two days later, Rakers picked Heaven up from the Starfish Animal Rescue in Plainfield, Ill. — and within weeks, she'd formed a close bond with "the teeny little ball of a fluffy puppy." She formalized her adoption a month later.
"I was like, 'Oh my gosh, I love this dog,'" says Rakers. "She was where she was meant to be. And we've been together ever since."
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This year Heaven also proved to be irresistible to thousands of voters in PEOPLE's annual World's Cutest Rescue Dog Contest presented by the PEDIGREE® brand. The 38-lb. pup — who's part chow chow, Labrador, boxer, and Pekingese — won first place, triumphing over more than 10,000 other adorable rescues. Her prizes include a year's supply of dog food and a $1,000 donation to the animal rescue of her choice.
"Heaven is my social butterfly," says Rakers of her now 3-year-old pooch. "I've made some amazing friends the past two and a half years, that I never would have met without Heaven."
But Heaven wasn't always the happy, easygoing dog her more than 10,000 Instagram followers (@heaven_is_a_dog) know today. She started out as a stray in Kentucky who was then transported from an overcrowded shelter to the Starfish Animal Rescue. Initially afraid of "everything" — especially men and the outdoors — Heaven displayed "intense" anxiety, says Rakers. So Rakers began taking Heaven to parks and dog-friendly businesses like Home Depot, where she'd teach Heaven to get comfortable with new sights and sounds.
"Anytime a cart came past and made noise, or a man walked past, she learned that if she made eye contact with me instead of reacting, she got a treat," says Rakers. "We worked through a lot of fears together."
Since then, Heaven has become a familiar face all over town. (Home Depot even gifted her a tiny apron.) "She's got the best shopping manners; she goes with me everywhere," says Rakers, who's also taken the lovable mutt on road trips to 30 different states. Rakers and Heaven have hiked in Montana, visited the Grand Canyon, and toured the Las Vegas strip.
"You can stop at a gas station, and she's excited," says Rakers.
Rakers hopes that Heaven's journey and the challenges she's overcome prove inspiring to people.
"I feel like the biggest thing that I learned from her was just not to give up," she says. "Heaven went through a lot really early in her life. Things that no dogs should have to go through. But she still loves life."
Joining Heaven in the World's Cutest Rescue Dog Contest winner's circle are Aslan and Panda, the runners-up of this year's contest.
Marketing coordinator Carly D'Eliseo, 29, first saw 5-year-old pit bull mix Panda at Cody's Friends Rescue in Dallas in March 2020 and knew they were meant for each other. Since then, they've become inseparable, and Panda's loving personality has inspired her owner to foster other dogs — with Panda's help — so they can find their own forever homes.
Aslan is a 1-year-old chow chow who was abandoned by his original owners before he wandered into Puppy Haven Rescue in Tulsa, where Matthew Porter and Jennifer Wyckoff Porter adopted him in December 2020. The couple welcomed their first child, Rosie, this summer, and now Aslan loves playing "big brother," resting by Rosie's side, and licking her tiny feet
To learn more about Heaven and PEOPLE's World's Cutest Rescue Dog Contest Presented by the PEDIGREE® brand, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE — on newsstands Friday.
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