Antonio Reese was 9 years old when a man fired shots into his family’s SUV, hitting him in the head with a bullet and changing his life forever.
“Antonio’s life as he knew it was taken that day,” said his mother, Tara Murillo, of Nicholasville.
But now his service dog, a 5-year-old German Shepherd named Alice, is being honored for giving him a part of his life back.
Alice has been named the 2019 Service Dog of the Year, and she’s sniffing for votes to become the 2019 American Hero Dog as part of a national contest through American Humane.
“Without Alice, my son wouldn’t be able to even have a piece of the childhood he had,” Murillo said.
Antonio, who is now 13, and his family were driving on Russell Cave Road in Lexington on March 7, 2015 when a man fired shots into their SUV. The shooter, Alberto Contreras is serving a 25-year sentence for first-degree assault and first-degree wanton endangerment.
Antonio spent 18 days in a coma after the shooting and has endured five brain surgeries, his mother said.
He suffers seizures and daily migraines as a result of the traumatic brain injury and has an artificial skull covering half of his brain, Murillo said.
“Any kind of fall could be fatal,” she said, so it’s crucial to have Antonio lying down at the onset of a seizure.
Enter Alice, who Murillo describes as her son’s guardian angel.
Antonio got her in October 2016, after lots of community fundraising and being paired with her by Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs.
Since then, she’s never failed to alert those caring for Antonio to an oncoming seizure.
“Without her, I could lose him,” Murillo said.
“With Alice, he’s able to go to school,” she said. “When I’m not around, I know Alice has his back, and he’s safe, so that’s a huge thing for me.”
Alice is also a source of comfort in a world that often just doesn’t understand Antonio.
When the family goes out in public, Murillo said people sometimes see him having a “tantrum” or exhibiting behavior more like that of a 5-year-old than a teenager.
“Sometimes we get some awful comments,” she said.
But Alice is Antonio’s protector, a “mama bear” who stands in front of him to shield him from what’s going on.
“She’s his best friend,” Murillo said.
Murillo said that when she saw some information about the American Hero Dog contest online, she knew it was a long-shot to enter, but she did it anyway because of what Alice has done for their family.
“Alice is a hero in our eyes, because without her, Antonio would not be able to do the simple things in life that we take for granted,” Murillo said in Alice’s nomination. “...She is a loyal and loving hero everyday. She’s saved Antonio’s life many times. If that’s not a hero, I don’t know what is.”
Alice was selected as Service Dog of the Year through online voting, but the contest isn’t over yet.
She is among the seven finalists for 2019 American Hero Dog. Other semifinal categories in the competition include law enforcement dog, shelter dog, therapy dog, military dog, search and rescue dog and guide/hearing dog.
American Humane, which has sponsored the contest for nine years, says the overall winner will be chosen by “a combination of America’s voters and a panel of celebrity judges,” according to a news release.
Members of the public can vote for their favorite dog once a day through Sept. 9 at HeroDogAwards.org/vote.
“The American Humane Hero Dog Awards celebrate the tremendously important roles dogs play in our lives,” Robin Ganzert, American Humane president and CEO, said in the release. “The American public and our special judging panel now have an extraordinarily tough task ahead of them in determining who our top dog will be because all are worthy winners.”
The seven finalists will travel to Los Angeles for “the star-studded Hero Dog Awards gala” Oct. 5, according to the release.
And they’ll be featured on a two-hour special that will air on the Hallmark Channel at 8 p.m. Oct. 23.
“We are so excited,” Murillo said. “It turned out bigger than we, I think, ever imagined.”
Murillo said the trip to California will be “huge” for Antonio.
“He’s had a lot of bad in the last four and a half years, but this is something that’s amazing coming out of this,” she said. “Dogs are more than just dogs.”