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Damian Dovarganes, Associated Press
** CORRECTS DATE OF FIRE TO OCTOBER 2010 ** Diamond, a 15 month-old pit bull, is shown after receiving the 29th annual National Hero Dog Award from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles on Wednesday, May, 4, 2011. When her family's Hayward apartment caught fire in October 2010, the dog barked to wake owner Darryl Steen. He rushed to save his daughters, grabbing 9-year-old Darahne and dropping her out a second-story window. But he couldn't get through the smoke and flames to reach 16-year-old Sierra. Diamond not only wiggled through but shielded the teenager beneath a mattress until firefighters rescued them both. Sierra and her father were treated for burns and received skin grafts. Diamond spent six weeks at a veterinary hospital recovering from burns and smoke inhalation.

LOS ANGELES — Diamond had to overcome fire, smoke and her breed's reputation to become a hero.

The 15-month-old dog is a pit bull — the canine of choice in dogfights, the dog most often cited in the news about vicious attacks and the most abandoned and euthanized dog in the country. But on Wednesday, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles presented Diamond with their 29th annual National Hero Dog award.

Diamond's owner, Darryl Steen, and his two daughters were asleep in their Hayward apartment on Oct. 24 when the dog started barking. The apartment was on fire.

"She means everything to me. If it hadn't been for this dog, me and my girls wouldn't be alive," Steen said.

Steen grabbed his 9-year-old daughter Darahne and dropped her to safety out of a second story window. He said he couldn't find his 16-year-old daughter, Sierra, who was hiding under a mattress in her father's room. Diamond had found her; firefighters spotted the gray-and-white pit bull on the mattress shielding Sierra, Steen said.

Steen and Sierra were hospitalized for weeks with burns, and had to have skin grafts. Diamond spent six weeks at a pet hospital, being treated for burns and smoke inhalation.

The bill was over $5,500 but people were so generous and there were so many donations, some money had to be sent back, Steen said.

The 15-month-old pit bull had been with the Steen family about a year before the fire, Steen said. She was protective of his girls, but her allegiance had never been tested.

Steen and his daughters are living with his sister in Hayward, and Diamond is staying with their other relatives because they haven't been able to find an affordable apartment that will take Diamond.

Some people worry that she weighs nearly 50 pounds and others are concerned about her breed, he said. But Steen, who will be able to return to his job at a warehouse in June, won't give Diamond up, so he keeps looking.

He hopes the award helps the apartment search: "Hopefully it will, and I'll be able to get a decent place with my dog."

With her title, Diamond gets a plaque, dog food for a year, air fare to and from Los Angeles and hotel accommodations for her and her family. The spcaLA for 29 years has been recognizing the heroic efforts of a dog that is not formally trained for rescue or law enforcement.

But for all her heroics, Diamond isn't without an Achilles' heel.

"She likes the dog park and playing with me and the girls. But she doesn't like cats. She is scared of cats," Steen said.