January-February 2018

Almost Famous

When it comes to social media, some pets have a mind of their own

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When Bethesda resident Laurie White adopted a 4-year-old puggle named Hoover early in 2015, she quickly took to Instagram to share pictures of him. White says her friends soon became more interested in photos of the blond dog playing, relaxing and occasionally wearing hats than they were in pictures of her, so she decided to get Hoover an account of his own. 

Nearly three years later, @hooverthepuggle has about 1,850 followers on Instagram, 350 more than his owner. Some are White’s friends, but many are strangers who browse social media for animal photos and often share their own. (Among Hoover’s followers: @presleythepuggle, @shantithebeagle and @chloethebrussels griffon.) White writes captions in Hoover’s voice, depicting him as charming and devoted, though decidedly self-absorbed. “It’s so hard to take a bad picture of me,” Hoover muses in one post.

Maintaining an online persona for a pet can serve as a hobby or creative outlet for an owner, and sometimes it can turn into a business venture. Pet accounts on social media have grown from an internet fad into something of a cottage industry. Two years ago, Time magazine published a piece entitled “17 Dogs You Should Be Following on Instagram,” which featured Maru, a Shiba Inu from Japan who now boasts 2.6 million followers. Enterprising pet owners can enlist the services of “influencer agencies” to help them get the attention of big advertisers. BlogPaws, a social media company for pet parents, hosts an annual conference focused on how to make a pet the next animal A-lister. A few have struck gold: After photos of a grumpy-looking calico in Arizona went viral, his owners signed an endorsement deal with Nestle Purina PetCare about four years ago to make Grumpy Cat its official “spokescat.”

White isn’t doing it for money or internet fame. She was recently offered a fee to review a dog carrier backpack for a friend’s fitness website, but she declined. For her, Hoover’s account is a “mental health break” from her communications job with Mom Media Enterprises, which organizes conferences for online media creators, and she wants to keep it that way. Beyond that, it’s a shrine to her best friend. “He’s the thing I love most in the world,” she says. 

Kensington-based artist Judy Folkenberg takes an imaginative approach to pet blogging, posting colorful shots of her studio assistant, a tuxedo-patterned alley cat named TeddyBoy Sinclair, on his own website, alongside book reviews written in his voice. In one shot, the cat tries his paw at poker; in another, he’s sipping a martini. Much of Folkenberg’s art is inspired by books—she used to work at the National Library of Medicine—and she says TeddyBoy’s Instagram and Facebook accounts can help attract people to her website. The challenge is getting TeddyBoy to sit for photos. “If you’re going to do animal photography, you have to do it somewhat at their schedule,” she says.   

Will and Robin Hart of Kensington created an Instagram account for their 11-year-old golden retriever, Hobie, four years ago to fulfill a promise to the people who’d been caring for him. Hobie had stayed with a foster family in Los Angeles while a rescue organization sought a permanent home for him. The Harts, who were living in San Diego, adopted Hobie in 2013 and said they would keep in touch by sharing photos of him in his new life. “It’s a nice way for them to see he’s doing well,” Will says.

Will created @hobiethegolden in March 2014, and Hobie’s former foster mother was his first follower. She still likes every photo Will posts of the dog, who’s often sleeping, playing or spending time with the Harts’ young children, Thomas and Molly. Like Hoover and TeddyBoy, Hobie—who now has 141 followers—speaks in the captions. In one post he stares longingly at scraps of rotisserie chicken on the counter. “Hey, Dad,” the caption reads. “Go in the other room for a few minutes.”