By Amanda Hatfield Anderson
BREVARD -- For the past year, hundreds of readers from throughout the Space Coast have emailed us their favorite photos of their beloved pets, in the hopes that they would be named a Hometown News "Pet of the Week."
Some were cute, some funny and some, just all-around entertaining, but each submission held a special place in our hearts.
Based on these winning pets, the staff at Hometown News narrowed it down to five pet finalists, each vying for a chance to be named our first-ever "Pet of the Year."
We, then, left the voting up to you - our readers - to select a winner via our Hometown News Brevard Facebook page.
Following a heated three-week competition and a whopping 436 total votes, you have selected a winner.
The inaugural title goes to "Dakota," a 2-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever from Satellite Beach, who took top-prize with 172 "Likes" on Facebook.
In second place was Wilbur Noble-Crowe, the 1-year-old pot-bellied pig from Malabar with 142 "Likes," followed by Brody Jones, the Anatolian Shepard from Melbourne, who earned 63 "Likes." Fourth place went to Nutmeg Bortzer, a 1-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel from Melbourne, who received 32 Facebook "Likes," and Juicy Froelich, a 4-year-old Chihuahua-dachshund mix from Melbourne took fifth place with 27 "Likes."
Dakota's owners, Barbara and Don Gornto said they could not be more proud of their playful pooch for earning such a coveted title and are very gracious to all that voted for her.
"She is such a great dog, very social and happy all the time," Mrs. Gornto said.
Prior to being adopted by the Gornto family in December 2011, Dakota came from very humble beginnings.
"Dakota was placed in a Lab Rescue as a young pup," Mrs. Gornto said. "The people who had her before actually had her brother, too. They split up up - one taking Dakota and the other taking her brother."
Shortly after her original owners' split, Dakota developed a condition, in which her eyelashes began growing into her eyes. Sadly, her owner could not afford the care and surgery Dakota desperately needed to save her vision, and surrendered ownership to a Lab Rescue.
"She had that surgery done, and there hasn't been a problem since," Mrs. Gornto said.
While all of this was going on, the Gornto family was also going through a difficult time. In October 2011, they were forced to say goodbye to their faithful yellow lab, Juno, after 12 and a half years of love and joy.
"We couldn't live without having a dog in the house, so we went to look at breeders," Mrs. Gornto said. "Even though we had adopted Juno through a breeder, we didn't feel like that was the right way to go this time."
That was when Mrs. Gornto contacted the local Lab Rescue. Little did she know that one of the main women working for the rescue lived just down the street from her family.
"When we put in our application to adopt a dog from the Lab Rescue, she called me and said that she lives right around the corner from me," Mrs. Gornto added.
After visiting with about six different dogs through the Lab Rescue, the Gorntos were finally introduced to Dakota.
"All of the other dogs were sweet, loving and adorable, but there was something very special about Dakota," Mrs. Gornto said. "When Dakota came into the house, hands down, she was the one."
Dakota, who is a big Florida Gators fan, is a social butterfly and enjoys going on walks with her human dad, Mr. Gornto.
"I feed her each day, and Dakota sleeps with me every night," Mrs. Gornto said. "She has to be touching me, always cuddled up."
Although Mr. and Mrs. Gornto cannot gush enough about their gorgeous yellow lab, they admit that Dakota is, in fact, their children's dog.
"She could play with the kids all day long and never get tired," Mrs. Gornto said. "Dakota wakes them up each morning by jumping on their beds and giving them kisses."
Dylan, 12, said Dakota is a big fan of chasing tennis balls and swimming in the pool.
"Dakota and I play soccer together," said Allison, 10.
Allison also wrote a book about therapy dogs for school, which, she said, proudly features Dakota and the late Juno.
"Dakota is a therapy dog in training," Mrs. Gornto said. "I work with children with dyslexia and bring Dakota to assist in some of our therapy."
When Dakota turns 3 this fall, she will become a certified therapy dog.
"There are two types of therapy dogs and the process is fairly simple," Mrs. Gornto said. "The first is a therapy dog that is more of a guide dog and is allowed everywhere - more of a working dog."
The second type of therapy dog is what Dakota is training toward, she said. This route is more relaxing and allows the owner to bring the dog to nursing homes, schools and the like.
Mrs. Gornto said that the process is relatively simple, but requires the dog to have the right kind of demeanor and temperament for the job, which Dakota clearly has.
When she's not practicing to become a therapy dog, Dakota enjoys launching into the pool and swimming toward her coveted tennis ball, as Dylan and Allison giggle and swim around her.
"We are very blessed to have Dakota in our lives," Mrs. Gornto said. "She is the perfect companion for our children."
In addition to being named "Pet of the Year" and being featured in a Hometown News article, Dakota and her family were also awarded a $50 gift card to PetSmart, four Space Coast Manatees tickets and several local restaurant gift certificates. Dakota will also be the new face of the Hometown News "Pet of the Week" advertisement.
The four finalists were each awarded $25 gift cards to PetSmart.