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A hero of humble beginnings

Sheena, the dog who helped her owner fight off two would-be robbers last year, is making history.

The 4-year-old mixed breed dog was named one of two top winners of the 1991 Dog Hero of the Year award Monday at the Westminster Dog Show in New York City.

Officials of the Ken-L Ration dog food company, which sponsors the event, say this was the first time in the show's 38-year history that there was a tie for first place.

John Rayner, Sheena's owner, said he was proud and pleased about the win.

"She's my girl," he said. "My dogs are like my kids. It's like Sheena made the honor roll."

The other winner _ Willy, a 9-year-old weimaraner from Los Alamos, N.M. _ saved his owner's life by alerting her to a deadly carbon monoxide leak from her furnace.

The two top dogs were chosen from a field of six finalists.

Rayner said Sheena winning made him look back on the dog's humble beginnings.

"I'm just really astounded," he said, "that a dog that probably would have been put (to sleep) because she was a stray has achieved such status.

"You don't need to have a thoroughbred to have a dog who's going to be loyal," he said.

Rayner found Sheena in his front yard two years ago _ unconscious and badly wounded. He nursed the dog back to health. She, in return, protected him when two men tried to rob him in a supermarket parking lot six months ago. The two have been close friends ever since.

"I think if it had never happened, if I had never found her, life would be kind of lonely," he said. "She's good company."

Rayner was without her Tuesday morning, though, as Sheena and her son, Samson, who also lives with Rayner, were at the veterinarian's, getting a bath and a flea dip. Sheena's pampering was a reward for the win, Rayner said.

"I figured, why not?" he said. "She deserves it."

Friends also have offered to buy Sheena rewards including a New York strip steak and a gallon of her favorite Haagen Dazs chocolate ice cream. Rayner said he wants to keep the treats to a minimum, though, because Sheena has been gaining weight lately.

"I just hope I can get her "lite,' " he said, referring to the year's supply of free dog food the winners will receive.

Rayner attributes the win to Friends of Strays Inc., a Pinellas County organization that helps care for stray animals until they can be adopted. Carol Arrighi, a volunteer for the group, wrote and submitted the story that nominated Sheena for the award. "I really have them to thank for all of this," he said.

Jean Bomonti, chairman of Friends of Strays, said the volunteer work Rayner has done for them over the years is thanks enough.

"He's been so great," she said. "He's really an exceptional person."