Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter
By Laura T. Coffey

It’s often said that dogs live in the moment. For several years now, most moments have been great for a therapy dog named Susie — but this weekend, they were magnificent.

Bedecked in a pearls and a purple tutu, Susie received a standing ovation Saturday night at a black-tie gala in Beverly Hills, where she was named the American Humane Association’s 2014 American Hero Dog. Susie was one of eight finalists for the distinction.

Susie's paw print appears on an anti-cruelty measure signed into law in North Carolina.Today

“I’m just blown away!” Donna Lawrence told after learning that her dog had won. “There were so many amazing dogs with great stories. When they called Susie, I just wanted to cry.”

Hero Dog of the Year: Meet the 8 finalists who doggedly sniff out danger and disease

Susie’s strut down the red carpet is all the more remarkable because of how her life began. In 2009, the pit-bull-mix puppy licked the face of her owner’s child. The owner reacted swiftly and violently, beating Susie and setting her on fire. The puppy’s body got covered in third-degree burns, and her ears were burned off.

Caregivers helped Susie through her painful recovery, and Lawrence adopted her — a move that surprised many, considering what Lawrence had endured just 10 months earlier. In 2008, Lawrence got attacked by a neglected pit bull that had spent much of its life tied to a tree in her neighbor’s yard in High Point, North Carolina.

“It snuck up behind me and grabbed me by the ankle and went into a full attack,” recalled Lawrence, 47. “He lunged at my throat, but I had grabbed my collar so when he grabbed on, he bit my hand.”

Lawrence managed to break free from the dog and run to a nearby neighbor’s house. She was rushed to the hospital and treated for severe lacerations, and doctors shared news with her that plummeted her into a deep depression.

“I had miscarried, and I had lost my ability to have kids because of the attack,” Lawrence said. “They told me I had a zero percent chance.”

She said the experience left her very fearful of dogs.

“If Susie hadn’t come into my life, I don’t know that I ever would have gotten over the fear,” Lawrence said. “I was drawn to her spirit — her love and affection for people when she should hate them, you know? She was living in the moment, not living in the past, happy ... I thought, ‘If this puppy can forgive humans, I can forgive dogs.’”

In the months following her adoption, Susie became a therapy dog to help other people who had survived traumatic events. Together, Lawrence and Susie also fought for stronger anti-cruelty laws in North Carolina. In 2010, they stood by as Gov. Bev Perdue signed Susie’s Law into effect, with Susie’s paw print appearing beside the governor’s signature.

Other finalists for this year’s Hero Dog Awards have similarly moving stories, which their owners shared live on TODAY earlier this month. They include:

  • Bretagne, one of the last known surviving search dogs who worked at Ground Zero in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks;
  • Kai, an arson dog who has worked more than 200 fire investigations in San Antonio;
  • JJ, a little dog with a powerful nose that can detect whether a little girl named KK Krawczyk is about to have a life-threatening reaction due to a rare illness;
  • Kota, a law-enforcement K9 who sustained multiple fractures while responding to a burglary in progress but who kept trying to help his police officer partner apprehend a suspect;
  • Xena the Warrior Puppy, a dog rescued from extreme abuse who went on to help a little boy with autism in profound ways;
  • Chaney, a military dog who served multiple tours sniffing out explosives in Iraq and Afghanistan, and
  • Xxon, a guide dog who helped an Air Force sergeant continue to serve active duty and regain independence after being blinded by explosives in Afghanistan;

“This is one of my favorite events — I come every year,” “NCIS” star Pauley Perrette told at the Hero Dog Awards. “These animals truly are lifesavers, just like their human companions.”

The Hallmark Channel will air the awards show on Oct. 30 at 8 p.m. ET/PT, 7 p.m. Central time. 

Need a Coffey break? Connect with writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter at @ltcoff and on Google+, or read more of her stories at