07/20/2011 at 05:00 PM EDT
has a soft spot for all animals, but one dog holds a special place in her life.
"My baby, my angel Kayla, was my first dog, and I rescued her off the street," the actress told PEOPLE at Neutrogena's 2nd Annual Wave for Change event in L.A. "I found her being dragged by this woman who was obviously struggling with drugs, and I convinced her to give me the dog."
The convincing wasn't easy and didn't come cheap, but the former Heroes
star was smitten by the 12-week-old pup. "I gave [the woman] a couple hundred bucks,” she said. “It seemed like she was really trying to get help."
In the end, it turned into a double rescue, with Kayla going from the street to a house in the hills, and the former owner finally getting a chance to turn her life around.
"It was a gift in both ways. I got the dog, and I helped [the woman] buy a bus ticket, and I gave her money for food," the actress said. "She actually left a message on my friend's phone and said, 'Please take good care of my dog, I just want you to know that I bought a bus ticket and I'm going home.'"
Panettiere is convinced she found an old soul and a kindred spirit in Kayla.
"There is something about street dogs, about rescues; they have this knowing sense about them. The first time I told her to sit, she sat," Panettiere said. "She is just the most loving, docile puppy. She really is a wise little girl."