Susie, the Pit Bull/German Shepherd-mix therapy dog who last night received the prestigious honor of being named the American Humane Association 2014 American Hero Dog, had a rotten start in life.
When she was just a 3-month-old puppy in August 2009, her owner’s boyfriend, Lashawn Whitehead, beat her for 15 minutes, doused her with lighter fluid and set her on fire — only because Susie had jumped on the couch where Whitehead’s baby son was resting. Whitehead dumped Susie in a park in Greenboro, N.C., and left there to die.
Despite a broken jaw and teeth, as well as second- and third-degree burns over 60 percent of her body, Susie survived. She was found two weeks later, covered in maggots, and taken in by the Guilford County Animal Shelter. After several months of treatment, Susie found a loving new forever home with Donna and Roy Lawrence.
Donna was extremely fearful of dogs at the time. Less than a year before, she’d been attacked by a neglected, chained Pit Bull. But Susie — herself a Pit mix — helped Donna heal.
“If Susie hadn’t come into my life, I don’t know that I ever would have gotten over the fear,” Donna told TODAY. “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.’”
Within a few months, Susie was certified as a therapy dog. She began visiting schools, hospitals and nursing homes, helping other people who, like her dog mom, were recovering from traumatic events.
As for Susie’s abuser, he was turned in by his mother, who’d witnessed the attack, three months later. Whitehead pleaded guilty to burning personal property, which carried a sentence of up to eight months in prison, and to felony animal cruelty. At that time in North Carolina, animal cruelty was considered a misdemeanor and only resulted in probation — no jail time. If the probation was violated, the abuser might face, at most, up to five months in prison.
The outrage over the slap on the wrist given to Whitehead led Lawrence and other animal lovers to campaign for Susie’s Law, sponsored by Sen. Don Vaughan. Susie’s Law increases the penalty for the malicious abuse, torture or killing of an animal to a Class H felony. Anyone found guilty of these crimes can be sent to prison.
Susie’s Law was passed in December 2010. The official copy includes Gov. Bev Perdue’s signature as well as Susie’s paw print. Lawrence founded the non-profit organization Susie’s Hope to continue raising awareness of animal abuse in the U.S. and working to end it.
At the Hero Dog Awards ceremony last night, Susie fittingly received a standing ovation. The purpose of this annual national competition is to recognize dogs who unconditionally help humans. The winners in eight categories were selected from more than 1 million online votes and a judging panel.
The American Humane Association 2014 Hero Dog Awards will air on the Hallmark Channel on Oct. 30 at 8 p.m.