I’m trying to get my dogs to sit still for a photo. If you’ve ever tried to get a spaniel to sit still you’ll know what a challenge this can be. Two spaniels? No chance. I wave a treat above their heads, desperate to get at least one of them to face my phone camera and pose. Bingo! Penny, the elder, stares straight into the lens and tries out a cute head tilt.
I snap away as the younger of the two, Flo, bounces around excitedly, a blue roan blur next to Penny’s – for now, static – black. At least this is an accurate representation of their personalities, I reason. Pictures taken (and treats dispatched), I upload them on Instagram and await the responses.
I’m not alone in sharing my pets on social media. Pet influencers have become big business.
Insta-famous pets include @JiffPom, a Pomeranian with 10 million Instagram followers; @itsdougthepug, a dressed-up pug with 3.9 million Instagram followers; @juniperfox, a tame rescue North American red fox with three million followers; and – proving you don’t need to be cheerful to win hearts or even alive – @realgrumpycat, who has 2.4 million fans and counting, even though she died in 2019.
With big followings come big profits, something founder and chief executive of animal-influencer event PetCon and The Dog Agency Loni Edwards knows only too well.
Some of her clients bring in six-figure salaries. Tempted? Well, Edwards’ new book, How to Make Your Dog #Famous, can help, talking wannabe pet influencers through the process of making their hounds household names.
It started with Edwards’ French bulldog Chloe, for whom the Harvard Law graduate set up an Instagram page in 2013. “Firstly it was just to share photos with friends and family,” explains Edwards.
“It wasn’t a goal to make her an influencer – they weren’t really a thing at the time.”
Before long, Edwards had built a community and met other pet owners with Instagram accounts who were starting to get work from brands and needed advice. Edwards saw an opportunity to combine her legal background with her love of animals and thus The Dog Agency was born in 2015, a talent management agency that focuses solely on pets.
Chloe sadly died in 2017, although Edwards went on to get a new Frenchie, named Emma, to “help me heal”.
So why is it that pets have become so popular on social media? Edwards has a theory. “We think of them as our children,” she says.
“They are truly members of the family, they sleep in our beds with us, they have become such a prominent fixture… so when people see adorable pets on social media, they’re drawn to them.”
While the pandemic shut down in-person (or in-pet) events, it meant a surge in social-media activity.
“It definitely spurred the industry,” says Edwards, partly because people spent more time at home with their animals. She adds, too, that in 2020 online communities became more valuable to us than ever before. “When you’re stuck at home and you can’t go out and see people, being able to build a community online definitely helped.”
Of course, as nice as an online community is, cash must influence some pet owners’ decisions to make starlets out of their spaniels.
According to Edwards, if you have upwards of a million followers you can expect to make $10,000-$15,000 (£7,228-£10,843) per sponsored post.
Even smaller accounts – in the range of 100,000 followers, for example – can bring in between $1,000-$3,000 per sponsored post. And that’s before we get on to merchandise, appearances, and photoshoots.
At the time of her death, Chloe had featured in ads for Google’s Pixel smartphone, luxury bedding company Brooklinen and was an “ambassador” for Swiffer cleaning products.
As to how to go about it, for Edwards it’s all about the brand.
“It’s not necessarily like, if you buy a golden retriever you’re going to become famous,” she says, explaining that pet owners who want to gain fans online need to think about what sets them apart from the crowd.
“Is it heartwarming content that’s going to make people feel good? Is it interesting information and facts about breeds from which people are going to learn something? Does it make them laugh?” Nail the brand, she says, and you’re on to a winner.
Pictures taken against clear backgrounds help, and they’re more likely to make your pet’s eyes stand out. If they’re not playing ball? Enlist the help of a tasty treat or a favourite toy.
Some owners make up personas and voices for their dogs while others dress them in all kinds of elaborate outfits. (@Tikatheiggy, for example, an Italian greyhound from Montreal, has recently taken New York Fashion Week by storm.
“Vogue deemed her fashion’s new It Girl,” says Edwards.
Interestingly, she says that there are no hard and fast rules about how often to post – as long as there’s “some kind of cadence” so your followers know when to expect your content. It all sounds like quite hard work, I say.
“People don’t realise how much work actually goes into it,” Edwards says, laughing.
But what of the ethics? Is it fair to treat pets as commodities?
Dog behaviourist Susannah O’Hanlon has some concerns. “I don’t think it’s unethical per se but given the sorts of images and activities that attract attention on social media, it might be too easy to prioritise ‘likes’ over welfare or integrity,” she says.
Promoting breeds with body shapes that are not fit for function such as brachycephalic breeds (pugs, French bulldogs, King Charles spaniels) or dachshunds, which are at risk of spinal and neurological issues, could lead to further breeding of extreme body shapes and further welfare problems, she explains.
She also has concerns over some of the behaviours displayed by dogs online. “Portraying tail chasing as amusing or an appeasement look as ‘feeling guilty’ misrepresents dogs and their feelings and leads to normalisation of signs of distress and discomfort.”
When this is put to her, Edwards dismisses such concerns. “What you see on social media is an hour, 10 minutes of taking photos and having fun. The rest of the day, the rest of the 23 hours, they’re just being a regular dog,” she says.
On the issues surrounding specific breeds, she adds: “People have their preferences and I think you should do what makes you happy… Overall these pets are spreading so much joy around the world.”
She is unphased by potential safety concerns. When I mention that dog thefts in the UK increased over lockdown and that, as a result, pet abduction is to become a criminal offence in England with police forces warning dog owners to be mindful when sharing pictures and locations of their pets on social media, she pours cold water over the worries.
“Someone could see a photo of you with a purse and say I’m going to go rob her,” she says. “I don’t think people shouldn’t share their pets because it might make someone want to take them. Live your life.”
I return to my Instagram post. Twenty likes. It’s not exactly gone viral and I certainly can’t see a six-figure salary in Penny and Flo’s future. But I’m also not sure I’d want to.
I love my dogs because of the joy they bring me as my pets, not because of their money-making potential. The odd post on social media, shared with family and friends, to me, feels like harmless fun.
Any more than that and I’d begin to worry that my relationship with these two loveable hounds had gone beyond that of (wo)man’s best friend.
How To Make Your Dog #Famous: A Guide to Social Media and Beyond (£12.99, Laurence King Publishing) is published on Thursday