With some owners earning a fortune from showcasing their pets on Instagram, Kate Leaver wondered just how hard it could be to make a star of her shih tzu Bertie…
If you have a phone and a pet, chances are you’ll feel compelled to post photos of your furry friend on social media. It’s just how dog and cat people operate these days, with a tech-savvy pet pride that cannot be contained. According to a study by Barkbox, 65 per cent of pet owners post pictures of their small companion on social media each week, and 11 per cent have created profiles specifically for them.
While most accounts are just troves of memories for friends to scroll through, some become big business. ‘Pet influencers’, as they’re known, engage ten times the number of users as human influencers. This is not shocking to anyone who owns an animal, of course, because they know their pet deserves global attention.
Bertie was always destined to be famous. He is my one-year-old rescue shih tzu with a wonky left eye, an oddly large head and a disproportionately elongated body. To me, he is an obvious candidate for social media celebrity.
I already follow more shih tzus than I do humans on Instagram, so I have some idea of how four-legged friends become celebs – hawking designer dog bandanas, posing with a Kardashian. But to help catapult Bertie to Instagram stardom, I need advice from the experts.
First, I speak to the owner of one of the most famous hounds in the world, Marnie The Dog.
@marniethedog has two million followers on Instagram, is renowned for her sticking-out tongue and regularly meets celebrities such as Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift and supplies her owner, Shirley, with her full-time job and income. Now 16-and-a-half years old, the shih tzu, who’s been active online since 2013, is semi-retired, taking on fewer jobs (and going to fewer parties). I ask Shirley for the secret to her success.
‘We got lucky because something about Marnie – her face, her expressions, her voice – resonated with people,’ she says. ‘Today Instagram is oversaturated so you’d be extremely lucky to make it to one million followers. But for me it was about making friends, sharing how adorable Marnie is and making people happy. If your aim is to make your dog famous, that will come through. You’re better off just loving spending time with them.’
Luckily for me, Bertie is my favourite companion and all I want is to share his ridiculous little face with other human beings. Frankly I feel selfish keeping his cuteness to myself. I have been known to refer to him as my ‘first-born son’ and I dote on him like a furry child.
Before I set up Bertie with an account, I look at @marniethedog for inspiration. Her profile includes her name, age, breed, the fact that she was a shelter dog and her hobbies (‘I love
2 partee, H8 being alone’). Her captions are written in Marnie’s voice, using stilted English and bad grammar, as though she’s still learning to speak human – something I bear in mind for Bertie’s account. I choose the moniker @littlebertiethedog and for the bio I go with: ‘Small but sturdy shih tzu. Adopted from Battersea. Hobbies: smelling, tiny wees, sass’. His profile picture is a handsome snap of him at the park in the sunshine, giving his trademark cheeky side-eye to the camera.
Next, I consult Lindsay, the woman behind @brunotheminidachshund (111,000 followers). ‘If there’s something unique about your dog, highlight it,’ she says. ‘You want them to stand out. Bruno likes destroying cardboard boxes, so I often post videos of him doing that and they do well.’
What is Bertie’s unique selling point? ‘He has a wonky left eye that makes him look constantly suspicious and he likes to sit on shoe boxes…’ I say. ‘Perfect,’ she says. So I kick off with a photo of Bertie sitting on a shoe box – a comical sight given his bottom only just squeezes on to it – with the caption ‘if I fits, I sits’. This is the beginning of me writing in Bertie’s voice, which is also the beginning of my descent into a special sort of madness that comes from impersonating your dog online. If Marnie the Dog is quirky and abrupt with her captions, Bertie is whimsical and brief. ‘I think his motivation is that he’s a bit thick but believes he’s very wise,’ I say to my boyfriend one day, as though it’s perfectly normal.
Michelle, who runs @shihtzubinky (58,300 followers), tells me I have to engage with other Instagram accounts if I want to build a following. ‘Post at the same time every day, maybe twice a day,’ she says, ‘and like the posts of people who don’t follow you but have the same hobbies and interests.’ So I go on a spree of liking posts of shih tzus and rescue dogs. Michelle also mentioned that commenting would get Bertie noticed, so I start doing so, as him. Things like ‘you look majestic’, ‘I too enjoy the wind in my fur’ and ‘wanna be frens?’. I spend an afternoon writing ‘what kind of dog is this?’ on every cat account I can find, which makes me laugh for an embarrassingly long time.
‘Use hashtags, post quality pictures – comb your dog, use good lighting – and use funny captions,’ advised Michelle. ‘I try to make my page as friendly as possible. It is a dog page – I don’t want to talk about any political stuff.’
Mental note: nothing controversial. And enjoy it. Dom Smales, CEO and founder of influencer talent agency Gleam Futures, says, ‘The most important thing is that it’s about having fun. Only dive in if you feel you have the time to commit and think your dog will enjoy it, too. Consistency is key, as is posting regularly. It’s a bonus if your dog is cute or unique, and if there’s a strong narrative. In short, get creative and the rest will follow.’
He’s not wrong: dog Instagramming is harder than I expected. I become a bit obsessive about it, each morning eagerly checking how many likes, views and followers Bertie has accrued overnight and spending at least an hour a day working on his presence, plus a weird amount of time scrolling through pictures of dachshunds in hats and talking to shih tzus who’ve been to the groomer.
As I’m posting a picture of Bertie in the bath looking forlorn, I wonder whether I’ve reached crazy-dog-lady status yet – and why exactly do I want my dog to have his five minutes of fame? ‘It’s similar to wanting to make our kids famous: we’re proud of our little one and want to show the world how wonderful they are,’ says psychologist Abigail San. ‘It’s an extension of ourselves. I’m sure there are other motivations, such as money, but the more genuine instinct is to share the joy. If you’re relying on your dog’s social media account for validation and your emotional wellbeing depends on it, that’s dangerous. But there’s nothing wrong with a bit of dog Instagramming.’
Endorsement procured, I get chasing new followers. In the first few days, he’s getting around 100 a day and more than 100 likes per post, so I get smug and excitable very fast. An American company offers him a bandana (#swag) and a dog backpack company posts a picture of my boyfriend nursing Bertie like a child on their Instagram account, which gets more than 200 likes. At 750 followers, things stagnate. I put some money behind a post to see if it gives us a boost. This is something a lot of influencers do; paying to have a post appear in the feeds of non followers. With £50 spread across three posts, plus a frenzied comment output from me, we zoom past the 1,000 follower mark.
By the time this story goes to print, Bertie has 1,065 followers. Most of them are people like me, so Bertie achieves minor-league celebrity status in an underground community of humans who pose as dogs online. He is blissfully oblivious, while I discover the joy of people who just want the world to see their beloved pet in a bow tie.
It can, of course, be extremely lucrative (Doug the Pug allegedly makes £350,000 a year, 13 times the average UK salary), but to make money I’d need a few more hundred thousand followers. To go full-time dog Instagram, I’d need millions. And it’s not easy: shooting, posting, liking and commenting is time-consuming, and I found myself losing hours doing it. It is quite lovely, though, so I will probably continue Bertie’s search for fame.
If you need us, we’ll be on Instagram.
How to Instagram your dog
Kate Cooper-Owens, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home’s social media specialist, offers tips on keeping your dog happy.
- Make them feel happy and loved, with plenty of attention during photo shoots.
- Take natural pictures that capture their personality.
- Encourage them with treats.
- Be aware of their personal space.
- Dress them up if it makes them uncomfortable or scared.
- Dye them or put them through gimmicky grooming.
- Put them in an uncomfortable position.
Doug the Pug @itsdougthepug
Followers: 3.5 million
Known for his viral videos (you need to see his Beyoncé), Doug is a pop-culture aficionado whose feed is filled with fabulous outfits.
Followers: 2.5 million
Japanese shiba Maru (his name is Japanese for ‘round’) might just be the smiliest dog you’ve ever seen.
Marnie The Dog @marniethedog
Followers: 2 million
Lights up Instagram feeds with her permanently goofy expressions.
Followers: 1.9 million
Aka the underdog with the overbite, this rescue chihuahua-dachshund mix is known for his distinctive expressions – he has even become a meme.
Manny the Frenchie @manny_the_frenchie
Followers: 1.1 million
This adorable French bulldog has appeared on TV and even has his own line of merchandise (including a book: Manny the Frenchie’s Art of Happiness).