“When you rescue a dog, you save three lives; the dog you give a home to, the dog that will fill the rescue space, and of course yourself. You’re doing an amazing thing!”
This is how Paula feels about her rescue dogs Riley and Mitzi and her words will move anyone who has taken in a dog from a shelter.
Four years ago, she was working in talent management, looking after celebrities like Kerry Katona and Margi Clarke, putting in long days and partying into the small hours and it took its toll on her health.
Then her dad Paul Riley Stewart was diagnosed with cancer
He’d dedicated his life to helping animals and Paula decided to take a year out and leave Liverpool to return to Yorkshire to care for him.
She said: “It meant I got to spend time with dad when he needed me. Dad was such a kind person. He’d always worked in the countryside and loved animals.
“He’d protected badgers, toads, newts and foxes and would put himself in the line of fire, going out to stop hunting and badger baiting and risking his life to save theirs.
“He had lung cancer and it spread to his bones. There was nothing the doctors could do. But I treasure the time we had together.
“Dad had two cats, Bilboa and Frodo and they both died shortly before he passed away at the age of just 64. Losing them broke his heart and while I was devastated to lose Dad, I knew he wasn’t suffering anymore.”
Afterwards, Paula returned to Liverpool and took some time to reflect
She decided to honour his memory by going to Merseyside Dogs Home to see about adopting a dog.
She said: “As I walked around the cages, one dog stepped forward and put her paw on the grills. She was Mitzi, a Rottweiler Mastiff cross and it was like she was reaching out to me.
“Behind her I saw a pool of blood so I asked the volunteer what it was. She explained Mitzi had Stress Colitis and when she went to the loo, she passed blood.
“She’d been picked up as a stray and rehomed many times but each time she was returned because of her condition. Being in the home made her stressed so she was caught in a vicious circle.
“It absolutely broke my heart. I’d suffered with Crohn’s disease for many years and I could identify with her – I had to take her.
“She came home and it felt like she was terrified we’d hurt her. She was so thin people would stop me in the street and asked if she was abused.
“I’d explain we’d rescued her. We’d share a bed and I did all I could to reassure her that finally someone was going to look after her.”
Paula, 36, who lives with boyfriend Mark, a music promoter, also took Mitzi to see a behaviourist to help overcome her fear of other dogs. She now happily plays with pups of all shapes and sizes.
She’s recovered from her colitis and having her has made a positive impact on Paula’s life. Walking every day has helped her lose weight which helps with her diabetes and Crohn’s. Before, she’d party for days but being a pawrent meant she was never away from Mitzi, now five, for more than a few hours.
Knowing her dad would be proud of her is hugely rewarding too. “I love my life now and I feel that his legacy is continuing,” she said.
“Having her there means so much after losing dad. Because he’d been so kind to animals all his life, doing the same makes me feel close to him.”
Inspired by Mitzi’s ordeal, she decided to volunteer at the shelter
She was horrified to see the terrible states in which animals were abandoned. One day, a Bull Mastiff came in, covered in scars and cigarette burns, his head twisted in agony.
Paula said: “It was a year after I adopted Mitzi and I could see he had suffered so much. I feared he might struggle to find a home as he’d been used as a fighting dog and I just said, ‘I’ll take him.’
“I named him Riley after dad and knew he’d help Mitzi get over her problems. He was so damaged but I reassured him he was in a kind home and wouldn’t come to harm, as I did with Mitzi.
“They both helped each other trust dogs and people again. Then he started walking into walls so we took him to the vets for scans and they found he had a benign tumour behind his eye that was pressing on his optic nerve.
“It was thought to be from an impact injury where he’d been hit. They said he only had a few months left and I just wanted them to be a happy time as he’d been through so much.
“The we found a lump on his neck which was a mast cell tumour that was removed. That was two years ago and he’s now ten and still with us. We treasure every day we share.”
As well as adopting her dogs, Paula spends her days working with pets too
One of her former talent management clients is Layla Flaherty, 35, a former Desperate Scousewife who now runs a pet model agency, Urban Paws.
Layla contacted Paula for advice shortly after she returned to Liverpool after losing her dad and she ended up joining her team. She went on to manage the famous cats and other animals for Layla’s agency.
In March 2020, Paula left Urban Paws and is now setting up an agency of her own.
She said: “I knew Layla back in 2011 when she was on TV, and back then I wasn’t that interested in animals, but when she got back in touch, I was well on my way to becoming a crazy dog lady and now I’m a crazy cat lady too.
“My most challenging job was working on a Worcester Bosch advert with 13 cats and we did another for UniKitty where they had to sit in cinema seats! Nothing is computerised so every scene you see we had to create with the cats.
“They were very well behaved but it is hectic. We spent two days putting the advert together on set and it really was like herding cats but it was so rewarding seeing the finished product.”
She often needs to think on her feet dealing with the challenges of working with animals
Paula revealed her secret weapon on set was once Femfresh!
She recalled: “I was on a fashion shoot with a model and a kitten, and, naturally, the kitten got a little nervous and had an accident.
“I knew the model had to pick up and cuddle the kitten while wearing expensive, designer clothes, and I was like ‘What do we do?’
“I had the idea to get some talcum powder to freshen the kitty but couldn’t find any anywhere! But I did find some Femfresh and that worked perfectly.”
While she works with beautiful and talented pets from all over the world, it’s her rescue pups that hold a special place in her heart.
She said: “It’s so rewarding and the love they give is immeasurable. With rescue dogs you think about where they’ve come from and they still have the capacity to give so much love so it’s wonderful to be able to give them a second chance at happiness.”
If you’ve been inspired by Paula’s story, visit the shelter Mitzi and Riley came from www.merseysidedogshome.org
If you like stories about rescue dogs, you may enjoy Trio of terriers find their forever home or How Frances fell in love with Zante Stray Smee and saved his life.