BROOKSVILLE — Sassy was a stray when she was picked up in 2009 by Hernando County Animal Services. She was suffering from heartworms and, judging by her distended nipples, had recently given birth to puppies that were nowhere to be found.
A Dalmatian mix, she was estimated to be about 3 years old, said Joanne Schoch, executive director of the Humane Society of the Nature Coast, where Sassy was transferred after remaining at Animal Services for several months.
"Her time was running out," Schoch said.
Once close to being euthanized, Sassy's life has taken a marked turn for the better over the past few years.
Last week, she bounded through fabric chutes and A-frames — training for the national Canine Performance Events agility trials, which begin Friday in Ohio.
Jen Fouts, 50, now Sassy's owner, was a first-year volunteer with the Humane Society when she met Sassy.
"We tried to find a family that would adopt her with her heartworms, but nobody wanted her," Fouts said. "I understand why people don't want to risk their heart on a dog who might die."
Fouts decided to accept her into foster care in March 2009, bringing her into a family that included Fouts' husband, two children, then ages 11 and 14, and two Shih Tzus.
Fouts, a retired St. Petersburg police officer, was home enough during the day to attend to Sassy's special needs, she said. Her children and her husband, Cliff, the executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Hernando County, loved the dog, she said. The tiny Shih Tzus ran underneath Sassy's belly when she was in the way.
"She was a part of the family right away," said Fouts.
The Fouts' Brooksville home sits on an acre of fenced-in forest, but Sassy couldn't run during her treatment for heartworms.
Nurturing Sassy through two rounds of treatment was a challenge, Fouts said, and the dog couldn't run or move animatedly.
"She was sick all the time," said Fouts. "But she still smiled."
After the first two-month round of shots, Fouts adopted Sassy.
She began taking Sassy to classes at Puppy Love Dog Training in Brooksville to build up her confidence and endurance. Sassy thrived. She was fast and smart.
But Sassy still had heartworms when she was tested six months later, so she began a second round of shots.
When Sassy's blood test came back negative for heartworms in June 2010, Fouts cried, she said, then took Sassy to McDonalds for a cheeseburger.
The pair resumed classes at Puppy Love, where owner Kathy Fornes observed the dog's progression from timid to confident.
"When I first met her, she was shy and afraid of her shadow," Fornes said. "For a long time, she wouldn't go over certain jumps. But she decided it was really fun, and so (Fouts and Sassy) continued and worked hard at it."
Fornes encouraged Fouts to enter Sassy in local agility competitions. In October 2010, Sassy participated in her first trial, a Canine Performance Events meet in Zephyrhills. In the style of most dog competitions, owners ran beside the dogs as they jumped through tires and over blockades.
"I have a picture of the moment we started our first run," Fouts said. "Her looking up at me, me looking down at her. That's what we do. She and I are attached by a tether you cannot shake."
Over the course of the next three years, Sassy progressed to the upper levels of Canine Performance Events and qualified in the 30 trials required before dogs can attend the program's national competition. Sometimes, Sassy even had "perfect days," Fouts said. She would compete in five events and earn ribbons in each.
At the national event, in Springfield, Ohio, she will participate in three events, ranging from scavenger hunts to traditional running courses, each day for three days, Fouts said.
Sassy's favorite event is "snooker," where Fouts runs in spontaneous directions and Sassy follows.
It's Sassy's first time attending an out-of-state event and her first time traveling so far, but Fouts is confident that her dog will excel.
"Sassy is capable of anything," she said.
Alison Barnwell can be reached at (352)754-6114 or firstname.lastname@example.org.