With his face pressed up against the sitting room window of the Howkins’ family home in leafy Basingstoke, Haatchi, a giant three-legged Anatolian Shepherd Dog, keeps an anxious lookout for the return of his best friend.
Every day for the last six weeks, he has sat and waited, barely moving until night falls when he climbs down, sleeps, then returns to his spot in the window the next morning.
It is a vigil he will never break because, without Owen Howkins, his life makes no sense.
Seven years ago, the Howkins family rescued this huge gentle giant from a life of terrible cruelty and he instantly struck a loving bond with Owen, their sweet, shy, disabled son who was then six.
The two became inseparable and filled each other with so much joy that when I told their story in my best-selling book and a YouTube film of them went viral, it affected millions the world over. But now the pair have been forced to separate in order to keep Owen safe from coronavirus.
Owen and Haatchi had an instant bond when they met seven years ago, now they’re inseperable
Owen, known to his friends and family as ‘Little B’, has moved 40 miles from his home with his father and stepmother, to stay full time with his mother Kim at her house near Oxford.
It’s tough on this determined young man.
‘It was really hard saying goodbye to Haatchi,’ says Owen. ‘He’s my best friend in the world. I tell him everything and snuggle up with him each night because he’s so big and cuddly.
‘When I’m with him nothing else matters. Now I can only see him on my iPad and it’s not the same. I can’t wait to cuddle him again and kiss his freckly nose.’
The decision was taken because Owen’s stepmother, Colleen, is doing frontline work for the emergency services.
Owen was born with a rare muscular disorder that affects his breathing, and he needs to be kept completely isolated until the danger of catching coronavirus has passed.
Because of Colleen’s job, the whole family took the brave decision to move Owen to keep him as safe as possible.
Three-legged Haatchi was named after a Japanese Akita called Hachiko who was so devoted to his dead master that he waited for him at the station every night for ten years
‘As soon as the pandemic began, we were all concerned for Owen as he is especially vulnerable and often has to sleep with a breathing machine that provides him with oxygen,’ Will, his dad, explained.
Will now works as a civilian for the RAF, after giving up his career in the services to care for his son full time and is deeply aware of the threat this ruthless virus poses for his beloved boy.
‘After consultations with his medical team, school and family, it was agreed that the best thing for him was to move out until it was safe for him to come home. He left here two days before the official lockdown on March 23. It was devastating to send him away but we knew in our hearts that this was unquestionably the right decision and, fortunately, he is now old enough to understand.’
It was Owen’s stepmother who first rescued Haatchi in 2013 and she more than most realises what this separation means.
‘I’d have gladly moved out rather than separate the two of them but that wasn’t feasible, since none of us know how long this is going to go on for. And Haatchi can’t go to Kim’s because she has another dog.’
‘Little B’ was born with a rare genetic condition called SchwarztJampel Syndrome that affects fewer than 50 people in the world.
It means his muscles are permanently tensed, leaving him in constant pain, crushing his chest and making it impossible for him to walk unaided. By the time he was six years old, he was beginning to realise he was different from other children and that started to affect him psychologically.
In 2013, the pair won the Crufts’ Friends For Life trophy after receiving a record number of public votes
‘Owen has to use a walker at home and a wheelchair at school but as he grew older and more self-conscious, he was becoming increasingly anxious and withdrawn,’ explains Colleen.
‘He didn’t want to go out and was convinced everyone was staring at him. We were all very worried and didn’t know what to do.’
Thinking that a new pet might cheer up Owen, Colleen was scrolling through the pages of a dog rescue page when she saw a face gazing intently back at her and gasped.
‘Looking up, Will said: “Oh no — what have you found?” I didn’t say a word — I couldn’t speak — I just turned the computer around to face him. Will took one look at those puppy-dog eyes and said, “Darn!”
‘We both instantly realised this was the dog for us, but all we knew about him at that point was that his name was Haatchi.’
Once the couple made further enquiries, they were shocked by the story of unspeakable cruelty to a defenceless animal.
At five months old and already the size of a labrador, Haatchi had been bludgeoned over the head with a blunt instrument and thrown onto a busy railway line in East London.
At least one train had run over him, causing serious injuries including the loss of his tail and a rear leg. Earlier reports claimed that he may have been tied to the tracks and speculated that the wheels of the train severed his bonds, allowing him to escape further injury.
A train driver reported seeing him lying injured in the middle of the tracks and when the RSPCA rushed to the site near Hackney Marsh on a bitter winter’s night in January 2012, they found ‘Stray E10’ in acute pain and suffering from severe blood loss.
He was taken to an animal hospital in North London for life-saving surgery and named Haatchi after a Japanese Akita called Hachiko who was so devoted to his dead master that he waited for him at the station every night for ten years.
Even though the three-legged puppy now had a name, Haatchi was far from saved as his health problems meant he was likely to incur his new owners a lot of expensive vet bills that would make him hard to place.
Fostering didn’t work either, as he crashed around on three legs at first and was too big for most homes so he was returned to the hospital, where his future looked bleak.
Having survived being hit by a train, he now faced the possibility of a very different kind of death. That was until he was saved by a charity at the 11th hour and it was then that Colleen spotted him online.
The night she brought the injured pup back to the home she shares with Owen and Will, she had no idea of the impact he would have on her stepson’s life.
But the boy she refers to as her ‘Little Buddy’ — giving him his nickname — instantly identified with Haatchi’s disability, changing both their lives forever.
‘We already had another dog, a collie called Mr Pixel, and we only had Haatchi on trial to begin with because we had to make sure his size and temperament was right to have around Owen.
‘But there was something magical about him from the start, as if he understood Little B completely from the moment they met.
‘Like Owen, he isn’t what most people think of as perfect and they seemed to recognise that in each other straight away,’ Colleen adds.
To begin with, Haatchi — who was at least three times Owen’s size —limped around the house sliding all over the place and sniffing everything.
But, the moment he stepped into Owen’s bedroom, decorated with murals hand-painted by Will, his demeanour changed completely.
As soon as he saw the oxygen mask and flow machine he sniffed the air repeatedly and almost tiptoed across to where Little B lay asleep.
It was if he knew Owen was vulnerable and that the machinery and tubes were a no-go area for him.
Then he silently backed away.
When the couple woke Owen the next morning and told him they had a ‘big surprise’ for him, he sat up excitedly.
His eyes were like saucers when Colleen brought Haatchi in. Without any encouragement, the dog lolloped up to the bed, gently rested his head on Owen’s lap and looked up at him with his big amber eyes as his stump of a tail wagged madly.
‘It was utterly electric, a combination of pure love and acceptance,’ said Colleen.
‘It was as if they were reconnecting — like old friends meeting each other again. Owen just melted, and I still get emotional thinking about it.
‘They seemed to communicate immediately — without words. For the rest of that weekend, they lay curled up together and it was hard to see where Haatchi ended and Little B began.
From that day on, everything changed for Little B. He wasn’t afraid of going out any more and was proud to show off his new best friend. It was a miracle.’
A moving YouTube video about their remarkable friendship called A Boy And His Dog attracted nearly five million views and won several awards.
In 2013, the pair won the Crufts’ Friends For Life trophy after receiving a record number of public votes and they starred in an Emmy-award winning documentary in the U.S. My heart-warming book about their story Haatchi & Little B was published in 11 countries following its debut in 2014.
Haatchi might be bigger than Owen, but they love cuddling up together and Little B says he can’t wait to see his best friend again
On Haatchi’s Facebook page, which has almost a quarter of a million followers, one of the most popular features is Kiss A Freckle Friday in which a close up photograph of his speckled nose is posted each week for importance of animal rescue.
Since they’ve been separated, Owen and Haatchi have had video ‘chats’ streamed to the family television so that it’s big enough for Haatchi to see, but Owen, speaking from his mum’s home in Brize Norton, is his devoted followers to kiss.
The family has raised thousands of pounds for animal and children’s charities through this and other posts and they attend events and venues all over the country to raise awareness about disability and the the first to admit it isn’t the same.
‘I miss everything about him, even his hair on my clothes. Home schooling might have been less productive with him around, as he always likes to get his nose in everything and see what’s going on, but I wouldn’t even have minded that.
The day I go home is going to be a pretty special day for us both.’
Haatchi, meanwhile, is suffering in his own way. Although he can see Owen in their video chats, he can only really register his voice and still doesn’t understand where he is.
Each time the pair connect the big dog limps up to the TV, cocks his head to listen, and then paws pitifully at the screen.
This isn’t the first time the two buddies have been separated as Owen sometimes has to go into hospital for ongoing treatment on his dislocating hips, as well as painful physiotherapy and sleep assessments, but they have never been apart for this long before.
Haatchi has long grown accustomed to seeing his little boy go off to school every weekday, sitting patiently by the window, waiting for his return.
When Owen comes home, the pair roll around the floor together again in a happy furry blur, marked by Owen’s distinctive ‘Woody Woodpecker’ laugh.
As with Hachiko, his devoted Japanese namesake, Haatchi now still watches and waits for Owen each day even though he doesn’t come home from school any more.
With his face pressed against the glass making what the family call ‘nose art,’ he won’t be distracted until his supper eventually lures him away. Every night he sleeps on the floor outside Owen’s bedroom looking very sorry for himself.
Will says: ‘It’s heart-breaking to see him pining. They’ve been virtually inseparable since Day One and when each has gone through health problems they’ve helped each other through, even taking their pain medication together.
‘It’s an amazing friendship based entirely on unconditional love.’ So, as the nation waits to be able to hug their loved ones once again, one boy and his very large dog are hoping for the biggest hug of all.’