ChiChi the Chihuaha Mix is the 2009 Hero Pet of the Year

ChiChi the Chihuaha Mix is the 2009 Hero Pet of the YearCourtesy Mary Lane

See ChiChi on the Today Show

At 13 pounds, ChiChi might be most at home in a handbag. “He’s so tiny, I can scoop him up with one hand,” says Mary Lane of her energetic pet. “Most people see him and think he’s useless.”

But last October, the Chihuahua mix proved to be more than just a pretty face. Mary and her husband, Rick, were relaxing on the beach one afternoon while on vacation in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. As usual, ChiChi was lying on his blanket in his own little beach chair.

“We had our noses buried in books,” recalls Rick, “when suddenly the dog became extremely agitated. His bark was different from anything we had heard before. And he would not let us ignore him.”

ChiChi ran back and forth in front of his chair, straining at his leash as if to run down the beach. The Lanes sat up to see two elderly women in the ocean, about 100 yards down the beach and 10 feet offshore. One was on her back, her head tipping under the waves. The other was frantically trying to keep her friend’s head above the surface.

The Lanes rushed across the sand and into the surf. Rick waded to the woman in danger of drowning, while Mary held fast to the other one and pulled her up on the beach. “Then I went back to help Rick,” Mary recounts. “The sand dropped off steeply, and a riptide was sucking the woman un-der. She was completely disoriented.”

Still recuperating from recent knee surgery, the woman had been unable to turn over or push herself up. “Her friend had been in danger too,” Mary says. “The waves were pushing her around. There’s no way she could have held on much longer.”

The women hadn’t called out for help. “They were struggling so hard, there was no time for screaming,” Mary recalls. But ChiChi had sensed danger nonetheless. “The dog knew. I’ve puzzled and puzzled over how.”

Duty done, ChiChi was back in his chair, asleep, by the time the two women were on dry ground and the Lanes had returned to their blankets. The women were shaken but okay, and after the Lanes delivered them to their condo, they all said they’d see one another again during the week. The Lanes never did get their names.

As for ChiChi, he’s a celebrity back home in Greensboro, North Carolina. His veterinarian has a local newspaper clipping hanging in his office about ChiChi, and the Lanes have ordered a special collar with the words “Hero Dog” embroidered on it. They hope it will bring a modicum of respect to Chihuahuas everywhere.

Plus: Meet all five hero pet finalists

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