NEWARK, NJ — Two years ago, a homeless pit bull was roaming the streets of Newark with severe burns on his head and nothing but pebbles in his stomach. With a little luck and two loving rescuers, the now healed and happy pup demonstrated just how far a little TLC goes on Wednesday by taking home the international title of Pibborafi Rescue Hero. 

Blue, who lives in the Ironbound section of Newark with owners Ilene and Jason Matos, became one of three rescue dogs to win the International Pibborafi Rescue Hero Contest, a social media competition hosted by an organization that creates plush toys based on real-life rescue dogs. As a winner, a plush version of Blue will be created in his likeness.

The proceeds from the plush Blue, which bears the same burn scars as its counterpart, will go toward helping Blue’s fellow rescues at Rescue Dogs Rock NYC. 

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In February 2017, the Matoses were on the lookout for a pit bull to bring into their family when a friend of Jason’s found Blue in a cemetery. Emaciated and abandoned, it was clear that Blue was in need of a home and medical attention. Painful burns on his head marked unimaginable past abuse, and an X-ray later revealed Blue was eating debris off the ground out of desperation. 

“I was excited to have the opportunity to take him in and get him healthy. I don't regret it, he's our best friend,” Illene Matos said. “The vet told us that he had a blunt-force burn, meaning that someone took something hot and put it against his head.”

Blue fit right in at the Matos household, but an onslaught of swollen sebaceous cysts followed as his burns healed. After a skin-flap surgery and a heavy prescription of love and attention from his rescuers, Blue and his survival story slowly but surely rose to prominence on social media. Like many loving pet owners, the Matoses created an Instagram account to share pictures of Blue’s journey. 

As the Internet discovered and resonated with the rescue pooch, what followed was explosive and unforeseen popularity. Ilene Matos said that when Blue’s Instagram account, @blue_the_mush_pit, reached the 1k follower milestone, she never imagined that number would multiply by more than 55 times. 

“I remember the day we hit 1,000 followers, and we created a special board for it. It was like, ‘Oh my god! My dog is more popular than I am,” Ilene said.

The unexpected popularity does not go to waste with Blue and his loving family — the Matoses, who also volunteer at Newark Humane Society, use their dog’s international win and platform to promote awareness about pit bulls and rescue efforts, focusing on the critical need for people to take shelter animals into their homes. 

Jason Matos said that despite the abuse and neglect Blue experienced at the hands of humans, Blue bears no grudges against mankind. 

"I wasn't a pit bull kind of guy, I stuck to small lap dogs. Once my friend brought Blue into my life, something took over, and it was like I had to help him no matter what," Jason said. "A lot of people think these dogs are big and aggressive, but Blue is the mushiest dog. He's sweet, he's calm, he cheers me up when he can sense I've had a bad day. I think of him as my son.” 

The couple said that thanks to Blue and all his surprise success, animal advocacy and raising breed awareness have become their passion. They aspire to have their own rescue one day and brought another rescue pit bull into their family, which includes two other furry siblings in addition to Blue. 

Ilene said she and her husband view Blue’s social media fame and Rescue Hero prestige as a gift that allows them, along with the Internet’s other high-profile pet owners, to challenge stigmas and bring much-needed attention to the struggles animals go through. 

"Our goal is to raise awareness. There are so many people out there that are afraid of pit bulls and who comment on Blue's account that the breed is aggressive. When we walk Blue, a lot of people cross the street," she said. "They don't understand. These dogs are snugglers."

As for the blissfully unaware Blue, his celebrity continues to pale in comparison table scraps, playtime and human affection.