BROOKSVILLE — Kasey O'Brien smothered Scarlett's face with kisses. It is a wrinkled, smoke-colored face above a fawn body that only a mother could love.
"You're going with me," the 11-year-old from Weeki Wachee gushed between hugs for Scarlett.
The pair, or team as Kasey prefers, had just won second place in their event at the prestigious Florida Classic Clusters Dog Show, and along with the ribbon came an invitation to compete in California.
Not bad for the Pine Grove Elementary School fifth-grader, who has been Scarlett's adoptive mom and teammate since the bullmastiff was a tiny puppy. Scarlett, nearly 2 now, weighs in at 115 pounds.
The two competed last weekend in the children's and young adults' ring at Florida Classic Park east of Brooksville. Some 1,800 other dogs and their owners have been competing all week in the state's largest canine contest, which continues through Sunday.
Kasey and Scarlett have been through similar shows before, but this one is on another level. Since October 2007, the self-described team has performed in Ocala, Palmetto, Brooksville and Tampa.
"It's competition, sportsmanship and teamwork between you and your dog," Kasey said. On Sunday, that included having Scarlett respond smartly to commands to heel, stay, give attention and stand on mark.
The pair finished just behind a wire-haired dachshund in the class of 11. This earned them a chance to compete in the American Kennel Club International Show in California in December, with an airline ticket accompanying it.
"That will give us time to save some money (for the trip)," said Kasey's grandmother, Jackie Bressler of Weeki Wachee. She and Kasey's mother, Dawn O'Brien, plan to accompany Kasey. (Dad Michael O'Brien will remain at home.)
It was Bressler who discovered Scarlett, a pup belonging to a friend of hers, Cathy Chofee of Spring Hill.
The O'Briens had recently lost a Rottweiler to bone cancer and were considering a new pet. Bressler called her daughter's family and said, "You have to see these puppies."
Kasey recalled the moment she met Scarlett. "When I saw her, I could see in her eyes she would be a team with me."
Added her mother, "It was all over. It was love at first sight."
Kasey and Scarlett, as well as Kasey's twin sister, Kristen, with her American Staffordshire named Versache, have attended weekly dog handling classes sponsored by the Hernando County Kennel Club.
Kristen and Versache competed in another class for dogs that had not yet achieved three wins. They weren't in the top four at the Classic Clusters, but Kristen was hardly dismayed.
She was just happy to have a dog to call her own.
At a recent show in Brooksville, a breeder noticed that Kasey and Kristen were taking turns showing Scarlett and asked why. When Kristen said she didn't have a dog, he gave her Versache.
Scarlett and Versache accompany Kasey and Kristen to the school bus stop every morning. That is after the girls take turns with their mother at feeding time — the canines eat breakfast at 6 a.m. They prompt the dogs' exercise by romping on the backyard trampoline while the critters run in joyous circles around the apparatus.
Kristen worked hard to prep Versache for the big show, trimming his whiskers and toenails, shaving his ears, and cleaning his teeth with dental wipes made especially for dogs.
"I think it's fun," she said.
Beth Gray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.