Meet the ASPCA Dog of the Year, Xena

Last September, little Xena arrived at the Dekalb County Animal Services Shelter in Decatur, Ga., in horrible shape. Abused, neglected, and severely malnourished, the Staffordshire Terrier mix pup weighed only 4 pounds at the time she arrived at the shelter.

Xena weighed only 4 pounds when she was checked into a shelter in September 2012; since then she made a miraculous recovery.

No one was sure she’d even survive, but Xena proved quickly that she has a fighting spirit. Her quick recovery even earned Xena her name — after the famous TV Warrior Princess played by Lucy Lawless — and her nickname, Warrior Puppy.

When Johns Creek, Ga., family the Hickeys heard about Xena’s situation and amazing recovery on Facebook, they just knew they wanted to give the brave dog a good home. Xena became part of the Hickey family in March 2013, and she has been changing all of their lives ever since.

Perhaps Xena’s best friend in the house is 8-year-old Jonny Hickey, who lives with autism. Before meeting Xena, Jonny found it near impossible to communicate with others or even make eye contact.

Now, thanks to Xena, Jonny has “come out of his shell,” his mother, Linda Hickey, explains.

“We have laughter in our home where it used to be silent before,” Linda tells NBC News.

Xena has taught Jonny to be expressive, and to even be tactile; the little boy often gives Xena kisses on her head, something he never would have been able to do before.

“He is the happiest child that I’ve seen him be in eight years,” Linda says of her son. “He is so, so happy when Xena is there.”

In fact, Jonny has improved so drastically since his family adopted Xena that they felt compelled to nominate their stupendous Staffie for the title of ASPCA’s Humane Awards Dog of the Year. Lo and behold, this year’s judges were as blown away by Xena as her family is, and Xena easily took the 2013 title.

Last week, Linda and Jonny accompanied Xena to the awards ceremony luncheon in New York City, where Xena was adorned with a tiara and special “Dog of the Year” sash. The now-outgoing Jonny was able to join Xena on stage. A photo of the proud boy throwing his hands up in excitement for the audience has earned more than 100 “Likes” on Facebook.

“I just knew that out of all the money that I spent on therapy, that [Xena] standing right there in my family room was the best therapy money could buy,” Linda says.

“These two were destined to be together, to save each other at a level that humans just can’t understand,” she adds.

If you’d like to continue to follow the amazing story of Jonny and Xena, check them out on Facebook today.

To learn more about the other recipients of this year’s ASPCA Humane Awards — including Koshka the cat and the Tommy P. Monahan Kid of the year, the late Catherine Hubbard — visit the ASPCA website.

Sources: Daily Mail, NBC News, ASPCA.org