Inger Sweeney of North Riverside says that she didn’t realize how stiff the competition was going to be at Petco’s “Unleashed” Chihuahua Races this past Saturday.

A total of 222 lil’ doggies showed up in tiny sweaters, ponchos and boas for the fourth annual regional Petco competition at 2204 South Harlem Ave.

The dogs competed, in packs of 10, down a 1/18th furlong (35-foot-long) track, from one human companion to another. While some dogs sprinted with utmost focus and determination, others opted to take their time, stopping to greet their brethren along the track.

Others ran out of the starting box and quickly doubled-back to their owners, not quite grasping the purpose of the gathering.

“The hardest part is teaching them that the objective is to run to the other side,” said John Coakley of Ukrainian Village, whose dog, Chloe, came in third place.

Coakley says Chloe’s accomplishments were the result of a vigorous training regimen. After competing in last year’s races, he and his wife, Agnes, built a mock race track and submitted their pint-sized pooch to regular practice runs.

“And she beat last year’s champion, Chalupa, [from Hammond, Indiana],” Coakley said proudly.

The pooches’ training regimens varied. Some competitors, like Sweeney’s dog, Manuel, prepared for the race by getting a lot of sleep and loading up on carbs.

“He loves noodles,” explained Sweeney.

Other lil’ doggies, like Pablo from Oak Park, approached the event with little to no preparation.

“He’s not a professional racer,” owner Jillian Clouse, Pablo’s handler, said. “He just runs a lot on his own-mostly in circles.”

Saturday’s event was one of 15 regional championships taking place across the country in the buildup to the national finals in San Diego on Aug. 31.

Bones, a long-haired Chihuahua and member of the Hitztaler family of Wonder Lake, won top honors at the event. Mookie, from Des Plaines, came in second place, while Chloe, from Chicago, came in third.

The throng of Chihuahuas also competed for a “Spirit Award,” which was awarded to Tinkerbell and her family, who donned matching pink T-shirts and feathers in a display of solidarity with their featherweight competitor.

Tinkerbell and her entourage donated her $15 prize to Chihuahua Rescue and Transport, which was present at the event, raising awareness about animal abuse and neglect and initiating the adoption process for rescued Chihuahuas.

Manuel can relate. Just one year ago he, too, was taken in by the Sweeneys after they found him on the side of the road.

Manuel was exhausted after the event and, upon returning home, quickly went back to sleep.

“It was our first year,” said Sweeney. “Next year we’ll train-no steroids, but we’ll train.”