The 5-year-old Philly bull terrier who put his life on the line to protect his people from armed robbers last winter has been honored for valor by the state veterinary association.

Billy, whose story pulled animal lovers’ heartstrings far and wide, has been selected to receive this year’s Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association’s Wodan Animal Hero Award.

The honor, named for a Harrisburg police dog who apprehended an armed suspect despite being shot four times, was announced Aug. 14 at the association’s virtual state conference.

In receiving the Wodan award, Billy joins some pretty august company. Since the honor was created in 2001, its recipients have included the canine members of a search and rescue team from Ground Zero at the 9/11 terrorist attacks and an off-duty police canine who saved his family from serious harm during a tornado.

“The award committee selected Billy because his story captured the spirit of the award,” said veterinary association executive director Jennifer Keeler.

But Billy’s heroism was a little different from some past hero animals. Rather than in the line of duty, Billy just stepped up out of love.

“We give a lot of awards to very deserving service dogs, but the whole committee was touched that this was just a dog who loves his owner,” Keeler said. “He was not trained. Instinct kicked in. We were all touched by the story.”

Billy’s owner, Felipe Sinisterra, was happy to accept the award on behalf of his loyal pup. Speaking for them both, he said there are a lot people to thank for Billy being alive to get this accolade.

“This award isn’t just for Billy. It’s for all the people who helped Billy,” said Sinisterra, 25. “I am grateful that he wins this award.”

Felipe Sinisterra and his girlfriend Natalia Gomez and their dog Billy in Canton, Pa., Friday August 14, 2020 ROB COLLEY / For The Inquirer
ROB COLLEY / For The Inquirer
Felipe Sinisterra and his girlfriend Natalia Gomez and their dog Billy in Canton, Pa., Friday August 14, 2020 ROB COLLEY / For The Inquirer

Dedicated veterinary staff, police, and an internet full of animal lovers from as far as California and France all came through with good wishes as well as moral and financial support for the brave but gravely injured dog. In words of Rachel Williams, one of the Penn Vet surgeons who helped save Billy, “He’s really almost a miracle.”

Around 2 a.m. Jan. 14, Sinisterra, an engineering student from Colombia, and his girlfriend, Natalia Gomez, 23, were walking Billy near their West Philadelphia home when they were confronted by two armed men.

Sinisterra, just off his job on the night shift at Royal Izakaya, a popular Queen Village sushi restaurant, handed over his cell phone. But Billy sensed his people were in danger. He started barking.

The gunmen opened fire, hitting Billy in the chest, and fled the scene.

Fortunately, police were nearby. Billy and his people got a police escort, shaving lifesaving minutes off the ride to the University of Pennsylvania’s Ryan Veterinary Hospital.

Billy took a bad hit. The bullet ripped through his heart, left lung, diaphragm, liver, stomach, spleen, and out his left side. Saving his life required two surgeries, nearly two weeks in intensive care, and a team of about 30 people assisting in his treatment and recovery.

That kind of care doesn’t come cheap. Billy’s veterinary bill came to $42,000. Again, goodness came through. Between the generosity of the many people who responded to a GoFundMe drive for Billy, Penn Vet’s Good Samaritan Fund, contributions from donors, and Sinisterra’s family, the dog’s bill was paid in full.

Dr. Rachel Williams, small animal surgery resident, and Dr. Lillian Aronson, professor of surgery, remove staples from Billy, a bull terrier, as Felipe Sinisterra holds him still, during a follow up appointment at PennVet in Philadelphia, Pa., on Monday, February 3, 2020. The bullet that hit Billy, hit his heart and traveled through multiple organs. After two major surgeries, Billy should be able to live a mostly normal life once healed.
MONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer
Dr. Rachel Williams, small animal surgery resident, and Dr. Lillian Aronson, professor of surgery, remove staples from Billy, a bull terrier, as Felipe Sinisterra holds him still, during a follow up appointment at PennVet in Philadelphia, Pa., on Monday, February 3, 2020. The bullet that hit Billy, hit his heart and traveled through multiple organs. After two major surgeries, Billy should be able to live a mostly normal life once healed.

The many Penn Vet staffers who gave their all to help Billy heal grew quite fond of the plucky pooch. They also were impressed by the devotion of his human family members who visited him every day he was at Ryan. They said this award is much deserved.

“We’re thrilled for Billy, and for his owner, Mr. Sinisterra, as this year’s recipients of the Animal Hero Award,” said Martin Hackett, spokesman for Penn’s vet school and hospital. “Their very special relationship is a triumphant, heartwarming example of the potency of the animal-human bond. And we couldn’t be more fulfilled knowing that Billy and Mr. Sinisterra have a long, inseparable, and happy relationship ahead of them.”

Billy and Sinisterra are indeed together, and happily so, despite the many unexpected turns the world has taken since the terrier got home from the hospital.

The biggest change is COVID-19. Like so many people, Sinisterra found himself without a job when the restaurant he was working for shut down due to the pandemic in March. Since April, Billy and his people have been living with Sinisterra’s mother in northern Pennsylvania. The young man hopes to get his old job back and return to Philly.

In the meantime, country convalescing seems to have agreed with Billy.

“A good side of the coronavirus crisis is Billy now has the opportunity of enjoying the green areas,” the dog owner said. “He is recovered now almost completely. He has a lot of energy.”

Felipe Sinisterra and his girlfriend Natalia Gomez and their dog Billy in Canton, Pa., Friday August 14, 2020 ROB COLLEY / For The Inquirer
ROB COLLEY / For The Inquirer
Felipe Sinisterra and his girlfriend Natalia Gomez and their dog Billy in Canton, Pa., Friday August 14, 2020 ROB COLLEY / For The Inquirer

Another dog might have been made timid, even mean, by his ordeal. But not Billy.

“I think he knows now he’s more the center of attention, and he’s a little bit proud. I can tell,” his owner said. “He pushes his chest open more, and his ears point to the sky.”

Before he left Philly, people who heard about Billy from news stories or the internet would honk their car horns when they saw him on the street. “‘Billy, hello! So great to see you!’ Or on the internet, I would post some pictures. Even people from other states, they’d say, ‘It’s great to see Billy recovered, back to normal,’” said Sinisterra, who got Billy as a birthday gift from his grandmother five years ago.

Now with the state award, who knows how far his fame will spread? The bucolic township where they are residing has fewer than 2,000 people, but there’s bound to be some honks out there. Billy the hero dog has earned them.

“Billy loves attention, and I love Billy,” Sinisterra said.

“I am so grateful for this miracle,” he said. “I’m so fortunate to have him with me.”