Is Your Dog Ready to Be an Instagram Star?
Posted February 9, 2018 8:26 p.m. EST
Oh, Tuna, you really do have it all: a quirky breed name (a Chiweenie!), everydog imperfections (that overbite!), the sad-sack countenance (I mean, if Buster Keaton were a dog …). You even have the heartwarming back story: a rescue, adopted from a farmers market in Los Angeles.
No wonder you have become the canine equivalent of a Kardashian: an Instagram star, @tunameltsmyheart, with millions of followers and your own line of calendars and coffee mugs. And you are hardly alone.
Dogs are everywhere on social media, particularly on Instagram, where the concept of the pet influencer has become big business for some owners. But not all breeds are created equal.
Consider the five most popular dog breeds in the United States of recent years, as compiled by the American Kennel Club: Labrador retriever, German shepherd, golden retriever, bulldog and beagle.
Except for the bulldog, whose days of toil baiting bulls are long gone, these are sporting or working breeds, most with big floppy ears and obedient personalities, several of which have played the lovable family dog in generations of dog-food commercials.
Compare that with the five most popular dog breeds on Instagram. The list, which the social media company compiled based on a search of breed names in users’ posts, is strikingly different: pug, bulldog, terrier, Chihuahua and husky. (The data did not distinguish between types of terriers).
What conclusions may be drawn? For one thing, Instagram puts a premium on superficial dog traits like cuteness over ones like intelligence or obedience.
“Instagram and social media is impacting everything, and influencing all kinds of lifestyle and consumer decisions, so it makes sense that it would influence what kind of dog people choose,” said Cameron Woo, publisher of The Bark, a dog-culture magazine based in Berkeley, California. In that way, Instagram is like television was in an earlier era, Woo said. “Lassie” inspired a midcentury collie boom; “Frasier” propelled a Jack Russell terrier moment in the 1990s.
That was certainly the case with Aleksandar Gligoric, a dog breeder from Serbia who named his online dog store Frenchie World. “People are considering Instagram worthiness in all aspects of their life,” he said. “I felt that the Frenchie would be the next big thing on Instagram.”
So, what dog traits are favored by Instagram users? Well, for starters, they like dogs that look like them.
Breeds like pugs and Boston terriers “really resemble humans, or babies,” Woo said. These brachycephalic breeds, with their shortened heads, flat faces and barely there noses, “are very photogenic with their large, forward-looking eyes,” Woo said. “They appear to be grinning or smiling,” never mind that the “smiles” are often caused by breathing difficulties native to their breeds.
Pug owners don’t disagree.
“With their smushed-in faces, all the rolls, and their funny tails, pugs are the least doglike dogs,” said Leslie Mosier of Nashville, Tennessee, whose pug, Doug (@itsdougthepug), is one of the most popular pets on Instagram, with 3.2 million reputed followers. “They are more like humans-slash-pigs-slash-dogs.”
The breed’s almost-human face makes it easy for owners to anthropomorphize their pets with costumes. Mosier plays off Doug’s perma-frown by dressing him — wrapped in towels, say, with cucumber slices over his eyes, looking like a moneyed divorcée taking refuge at Canyon Ranch.
A dog’s popularity can increase exponentially when it has a signature style flourish, the canine equivalent of Anna Wintour’s sunglasses or Pharrell Williams’ hats. Case in point: the Gene Simmons-length tongue of @marniethedog, a Shih Tzu rescue that at this point may be more famous than the real Gene Simmons, thanks to an explosively popular Instagram feed.
And if the flourish isn’t genetic, an owner can create one with careful grooming. Take Agador (@poochofnyc), a Maltipoo with teddy bear looks who has appeared in ad campaigns for Google and a teaser for Katy Perry’s “Bon Appétit” video.
Agador’s explosive orb of copper-colored frizz is gussied up into a spherical confection atop his head. It is a look that conjures Bob Ross, the TV painter who died in 1995. And who isn’t going to follow “the Bob Ross of dogs,” as Agador is billed on Instagram?
“It makes him instantly recognizable,” said Allan Monteron, one of his owners. “People stop us on the street and say, ‘I follow that dog on Instagram!'”
Exaggerated features are a plus, too. Take corgis, those squat-legged canine courtiers to the queen. They are certainly hot on Instagram, with accounts that have “corgi” in the user name rising 200 percent over the past year, according to Instagram, and that cannot all be attributable to the breed’s occasional cameo on “The Crown.” Every feature of the corgi works as a visual punch line: those oversize Yoda ears, the squat “Honey, I Shrunk the Collie” body, the 50-percent-off appendages.
The same may be said of bulldogs, the one breed that appears in the top five of both Instagram and the American Kennel Club. Outside of social media, bulldogs’ popularity will be assured so long as there are Anglophiles, Marine Corps veterans and college football fans in Georgia.
On Instagram, where user names that include “bulldog” surged 60 percent in the past year, bulldogs check multiple boxes: They look like people (specifically, grumpy old men), have inherently comic features (the volleyball-size head, the tiny bow legs) and are easy to anthropomorphize.
The breed has also reaped a windfall of “it dog” publicity from celebrities, including Brad Pitt, Jessica Biel and David Beckham, for whom these homely little bruisers seem to make the perfect foil. The message seems to be: “Do not hate me because I am beautiful, since my dog is not.”
Mutts and Tripods Because of their associations with the queen and the British Empire, however, both corgis and bulldogs seem out of step with the current vogue for rescue dogs and less rarefied breeds.
These days, pointedly aristocratic breeds tend not to pop on social media as much as dogs with quirky features or compelling back stories, said Elias Weiss Friedman, a New York photographer who spends his days snapping pictures for The Dogist, a dog-centric street photography site that has a rabid Instagram following.
“I’ve found that people prefer the more real, natural dogs,” Friedman said. “Poodles seem to give off a pretentious vibe, especially if they have the classic poodle haircut. The older generations love them, but I think the younger generation sees that style as fake, undogly.”
His two most popular posts have been a mixed breed puppy with funny ears named Larry and a 12-year-old Labrador with vitiligo named Rowdy. “People crave relatability, and see dogs as individuals with similar life challenges to themselves,” he said.
The right kinds of mixed breeds — they were once called mutts — play well on social media, particularly if their features are camera worthy. A husky-malamute-wolf mix called @loki_the_wolfdog has become one of the 10 most popular pets on Instagram, thanks in part to his rugged “Call of the Wild” aura and head-turning looks (including mismatched eye colors and a silky coat that changes color with the seasons) that his owner, Kelly Lund, uses to poetic effect in his shots of Loki in the snow-dusted Colorado wilderness.
Many dog owners interviewed also said they see mutts, rescues and disabled dogs as a more ethical choice. “I think the most difficult question posed to us is always ‘Where did you get that dog? I want to get one exactly like it,'” said Francis Bott, who owns Agador with his partner, Monteron. “It is simple enough to provide the breeder’s name, but we are big proponents of adopting rescues whenever possible.”
(They opted to buy a hypoallergenic poodle mix from a breeder, Bott said, because their previous dog, a rescue Shih Tzu-bichon mix, aggravated their allergies.)
Rescue organizations like the North Shore Animal League and the Brooklyn Animal Resource Coalition blanket social media with heart-rending photos of doe-eyed animals looking for a home.
Such social media efforts to raise awareness have led to a demand for differently abled dogs and “tripods,” or those missing a limb, said Jennifer Nosek, the editor of Modern Dog magazine. One such unlikely Instagram star was Smiley, a golden retriever born without eyes, and with a form of dwarfism, in a puppy mill, who became a service dog in nursing homes and hospitals. (Smiley’s death last year, after a battle with cancer, was covered by the news media.)
“Perhaps it’s an antidote to all the bad news we’re so often bombarded with,” Nosek said. “These accounts remind us that there are people, and dogs, out there doing good.” Either that, or such dogs just provide a break from the pressure that the rest of us feel trying to look too perfect for Instagram.
Take @chloekardoggian, a 13-year-old rescue Chihuahua in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with huge eyes and 153,000 followers. “Her ears go up, her nose goes right, her tongue goes left, and her eyes each go in different directions,” said Dorie Herman, her owner. “Everyone has felt like Chloe looks at some point in their lives.”