During a nationwide six-month search for hero dogs, hundreds of canines from all 50 states were nominated and some 400,000 votes were cast, culminating in the selection of the eight extraordinary canine finalists. That's where a panel of celebrity and expert judges took over, including Whoopi Goldberg, Orlando Brown, Kristin Chenoweth, Susan Orlean (author of "Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend"), all overseen by dog trainer Victoria Stilwell of "It's Me or the Dog" on Animal Planet.
Each of the eight winning dogs walked the red carpet with dozens of paparazzi shooting photos and video.
"I felt like a Hollywood celebrity," said Dione Luper, of Des Plaines, Ill.
In 2004, Zurich was partnered as a service dog with Luper's wife, Patricia Kennedy, who'd been diagnosed with a degenerative and fatal brain-stem disease called OPCA (olivopontocerebellar atrophy). There wasn't a dry eye in the house because Patricia was on stage when Dione accepted the award.
Dione said he felt confident saying that if not for Zurich, his wife would simply no longer be alive, and that Zurich manages to support her quality of life by making her laugh. Patricia is no longer able to talk, but she can smile.
Later, Dione said that Patricia was hesitant about traveling from the Chicago area to Hollywood, and appearing on stage. "But she really enjoyed it."
Among the tributes during the broadcast, Peter Fonda introduced a video piece on the search-and-rescue dogs who worked at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Then Michael Hingson appeared, and told his story. His Guide Dog Award winner, Roselle, led him down 78 stories and 1,463 stairs from Tower One of the World Trade Center. Sadly, Roselle, passed away this summer.