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Dogs of Instagram: Infiltrating the ranks of Minnesota's newest celebrities

Kovu, @thedogsaga

Kovu, @thedogsaga

"A dog being a dog is the most beautiful thing."

This is the philosophy Shinjiro Ono, owner of Maru Taro, rattles off when he's asked why his dog is so popular on Instagram. Maru is indeed beautiful. The five-year-old shiba inu has been called the Sistine Chapel of dogs for his refined, lupine stare and sugary, fanged grin. With 1.9 million followers, he's probably the most followed canine on the photo-sharing app, and according to Ono, that's because of his pure, elemental allure.

Legions of hopeful, idealistic dog owners have taken to social media to parade their pups, thanks in large part to the success of dogs like Maru and Boo, the internet's first celebridog. Boo boasts 17.2 million Facebook fans, two book deals, and a line of plush stuffed clones. Marnie the Dog, Maru's biggest competitor on Instagram at 1.7 million followers, has turned her digital esteem into a gushing revenue stream of product endorsements, merchandising, and celebrity appearances. All three owners are making six figures because of their four-legged friends.

Before I even submitted a bid to adopt my Muppet-like, ginger-blond rat terrier mix, he was on my Instagram. My snapshots of him got so many likes that, before he was fully house trained, Camper had his own handle, @camper_cam. If my dog could draw a droplet of Maru, Boo, or Marnie's success, he could pay my rent or, at the very least, reimburse me for the all carpet cleaner.

Luckily, I live in Minnesota, a state where dog mania is a cultural touchstone. Last year, the people of Cormorant in northwestern Minnesota elected a seven-year-old Great Pyrenees named Duke as their mayor. Last week, a St. Paul couple sued their breeder for $50,000 for vengefully neutering their million-dollar champion bichon frisé. This dog-crazed atmosphere has made Minnesota a hub for celebridog hobbyists, and the 60-plus self-identified Minnesota Dogs of Instagram are known to gather en masse at local doggie playgrounds. If I ever hope to have Camper reach Marnie or Maru levels, I'll have to start by infiltrating their ranks.

Joining the Pack

Bryn, @miniaussie_bryn

Bryn, @miniaussie_bryn

Most celebrity-seeking dog accounts are unnervingly pleasant. The dogs pose in sunglasses above a chain of smiling emojis. They gallop open-mouthed next to a spaniel their owners dumbly posit is their best fwiend. It's Stepford poochery. Pandering accounts are the bedrock of doggie Instagram, but they rarely have the X factor it takes to break the internet.

Dani Peterson's account @hollyandraven takes this uber-positive trope and interprets it with maturity and armchair philosophy. The Park Rapids Instagrammer uses her mini Australian shepherd (Holly) and border collie (Raven) to inspire her 33,000 followers with feel-good platitudes like "Your mind is a powerful thing. When you fill it with positive thoughts, your life will start to change." A sun-washed shot of Holly tongue-wagging through a dreamy field of grain sells the message.

It's a runaway success. The 18-year-old Peterson gets, on average, disproportionately more likes per photo than accounts of similar size, and comments on her pics are flush with praise that spans several alphabets.

The diametric opposite to Peterson's carefully wrought, sentimental branding is Lamont, the majestic leonberger pup whose goofy, hip-hop-loving persona is less a brand and more an avatar of his whimsical owners, Minneapolis' John Mooty and Natalie Pastor.

Now 10 months old, Lamont — or Big L, as he's commonly known to his devotees — is one of Minnesota's rising celebridogs. The monstrous blond beaut, captured in @lamontstagram, has accumulated nearly 3,000 followers without a second thought to marketing.

"Natalie and I can both agree that we didn't want to flood our own feed with dog features," Mooty says. "It wasn't, 'Let's give him this whole character and create this story,' it was more just, 'I don't wanna annoy people who don't want to see my dog constantly.'"

Nine months in, Mooty and Pastor aren't gathering monumental numbers, but they are beginning to concede to their pup's celebrity. Lamont factors prominently in the social media marketing of the couple's North Loop boutique Wilson & Willy's, and they even hosted a pop-up shop where Lamont cavorted with fellow up-and-coming Minnesota celebripups @rouxmagnolia and @franky.dood.

For others, Insta-fame is, in fact, instant. Rises are meteoric; marquee accounts balloon to their first comma within a calendar year.

In the case of 14-year-old Minneapolitan Samantha Van Buren, maestro of @sunnyandjudy (14,600 followers), fame came in a surge. In April, she posted a YouTube video wherein she asks her two dogs "who pooped in the kitchen?" Australian terrier Judy doesn't hesitate, accusatorily pawing her sister Sunny, a squinty long-haired chihuahua who reluctantly accepts the blame.

The video was blog candy, and thanks to a visibility boost from Buzzfeed, it now has nearly 7 million views. Van Buren was shrewd enough to emboss her Insta handle on the video — and earned herself 6,000 more followers.

Nearly every clickable pup video that passes through Buzzfeed results in a celebridog, but Instagram has avenues of its own for firestarting. Instagram's feed plays to an audience of 99.9 million, and their #WeeklyFluff tag is a kingmaker for pets of all species, especially dogs.

When Lakeville's Nicole Wellens got her nine-month-old golden retriever, Loki, featured as part of the promotion, it launched her account into the stratosphere. In a matter of days, she'd gained 20,000 new fans, positioning @lokithegoldengod (35,800 followers) as one of the most popular hounds in the state. Now, she's being solicited by the masses to pay it forward.

"Today alone I got like 30 [direct messages]," Wellens says. "I sort of ignore them all. A lot of people are like 'Can you give me a shoutout?' or 'Can you like this picture for me, I'm in a contest,' things like that."

The amount of panhandling it takes to network on Instagram is unsettling. In my mind, accounts should be pleading with me to let them feature Camper's charming muzzle and pita chip-shaped ears. Instead, I opt for what appears to be the most effective route to the top — nepotism.

The Commodification of Cute

Loki, @lokithegoldengod

Loki, @lokithegoldengod

I haven't felt this anxious since my first holy communion. I'm sitting across from Ashley Paguyo El Shourbagy in the North Loop Dunn Bros, and she has my Android in her palm. She's thumbing through Camper's pics with a cocked eyebrow, and I can feel my gut roiling.

My soul is wicked and black, and she can tell.

"You have a mix of really good pictures and some that are whatever," she says without naming a penance. "If you want to get serious about it, all your pictures need to be great. The Instagram game's standards have been raised."

The standards Paguyo El Shourbagy is referring to were set by @dogsofinstagram, the tastemaking account she co-founded with her husband, Ahmed El Shourbagy, in 2011. Last year, the endeavor netted the two the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal Diversity in Business award, and that August, they quit their day jobs to focus full-time on serving up user-submitted canines to their 2.1 million subscribers. That makes their opinions exponentially more relevant than those of the Abrahamic god.

I like the idea of natural, almost coincidental popularity, but it's an impossible ideal. In the arena of dog fame, there is rarely such a thing as coincidence. Nepotism is king. Scuttlebutt is that even Boo, the industry's seemingly pristine icon, parlayed his mom's position at Facebook to engineer his success. The El Shourbagys openly admit that they play favorites.

The two, who also own a burgeoning accessory brand called Lucy & Co., have a network of "influencers" who have a direct line to Dogs of Instagram for features and contests. This network includes Peterson, Van Buren, and now Mooty/Pastor, and it's company I'm hoping to join in order to cross into the green elysium of Instagram fame.

"Few dogs ever get famous, but even fewer generate any income, so it requires some ambition," says Ashley. "If you were to start a dog account today, you'd have to have either a connection or you'd have to have a schtick or something that differentiates you in a saturated market," Ahmed adds.

Camper, @camper_cam

Camper, @camper_cam

Cuteness is no longer the only prerequisite to celebrity. In 2015, squee, the delightful gush of happiness derived from internet cuteness, is an unsustainably mined commodity. In the endlessly proliferating plane of Instagram, owning and photographing the everyday life of your adorable little cur won't even get you into the triple digits of followers.

Ahmed points to skyrocketing Nashville Insta-character Doug the Pug (717,000 followers) as a great example of how a narrative can elevate your dog's account. Through the lens of Doug's slothish, tragically single personality, his owners are able to universalize well beyond human predilection for warm 'n' fuzzies.

"Beyonce releases a new song, and Doug the Pug is at home on a Saturday night playing the song," Ahmed says. "It's relevant and funny, and we can all laugh about it."

After scrolling a bit more, the El Shourbagys realize Camper's potential. The ears, the eyes, the anthropomorphically furrowed brow — he's cute, they admit it. They urge me to keep going, to update more regularly and be more choosy about resolution. Offhandedly, they offer Camper some modeling work with Lucy & Co. I blush visibly and laugh into my collar. I'm gonna be rich.

Fetching Cash

Dogs of Instagram is a gateway to beefing up your social standing in the dog community, but regardless of your follower count, you're not a celebridog until you start vending for Bark & Co.

Bark & Co. started off as BarkBox, a service that delivers boxes of treats and toys to subscribers on a monthly basis. In the fall of 2012, they launched BarkPost, a dog-centric Buzzfeed imposter that, according to the El Shourbagys, has become the most lucrative arm of their four-pronged business. Led by the viral ad revenue from BarkPost, Bark & Co. as a whole generates over $1 million per month.

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BarkBox's proliferation point is Instagram, where they pay dog accounts to advertise their product. Being selected as a BarkBox client has basically become a verification system on Instagram.

Back in 2013, BarkBox called on Selby Simpson, owner of the six-year-old dachshund Kovu known as @thedogsaga, to shill for the brand. Since she took on BarkBox a little over a year ago, the 21-year-old St. Paul resident has compiled 127,000 loyal followers, putting her in the upper echelon of local dog Instagrammers.

"BarkBox is the original," says Paguyo El Shourbagy. "They truly built their company around the idea of celebridogs. They saw what was going to happen, and they were like, 'Let's build an entire company around this Dogs of Instagram and pay every dog account to help us do it.'"

"What we care about is authentic experiences shared via user-generated content," says Alexis Anderson, Head of Partnerships for BarkBox. She did not specify how much BarkBox pays its sponsees, insteading stating that the company offers "rewards like BarkShop.com credit, editorial features [presumably on BarkPost], and BarkBoxes to use in contests/giveaways."

According to Fargo's Kaitlyn Oliver, who helms the 18,500-follower-strong account @miniaussie_bryn, this is the way it typically goes. In her experience with PetBox, a BarkBox knockoff, compensation usually comes in the form of gratis product, though Instagrammers can make cash from the personalized discount codes these companies sometimes offer.

"[PetBox] gave us this whole contract type thing that said, 'You have to post twice a month about the box or with a box, we don't care what days, and that's your reward to begin with,'" Oliver says. "Then, if someone uses your code, you get a percentage per box. Once you hit 25 boxes, it goes into your PayPal."

Oliver declined to say how much money this formula nets her and Bryn, but for full-time Instagram beneficiaries like Simpson, these deals are the foundation of a livelihood. At her level of the game, Simpson is sought after a lot. She has to turn down suitors in order to keep her feed from getting "super advertise-y."

"I get asked quite a bit," she says. "It's kind of hard because it's free stuff, and you want free stuff, but you don't want to annoy people with promotional posts."

The cute dog industry, despite the absurdity of calling it an "industry," has become a formidable revenue stream. Yahoo! Tech estimates that Instagram followings of around 100,000 bank $700-$900 per sponsored post, and 'Grammers with over 500,000 in tow can earn $2,000-$3,000. It's unclear whether this rate scales to dogs, but Paguyo El Shourbagy estimates it isn't far off.

"A huge account like Manny the Frenchie is probably pulling in around $1,000 per post," she says. "It's hard to say though. It's totally negotiated on a case-by-case basis — there are so many factors at play."

Peterson, of @hollyandraven, claims that, regardless of size, money isn't guaranteed. Despite 30,000-plus followers and a business relationship with GoPro, she purports to have grossed only $10. "I simply want to share photos," she says. "I'm not worried about making money."

So what do you do if making money is all you care about?

Roll Over and Play Famous

Around the point Camper's account began getting double-digit likes, he started getting tagged alongside hundreds of other hounds in the comment sections of posts that advertise "active followers who will like your pictures every single day." This is a trap.

An account named MANYYFR33F0LL0WEERSGETN0W tags Camper in a post advertising Instafamenow.com, a booster site that bills itself as the "#1 social media marketing service on the web." Instabuygram.com, a similar popularity scam that pops up a few days later, dispenses with the marketing babble and runs under the no-bullshit tagline "just buy followers and likes." With every spammy tag, I become more and more convinced that this is a good idea.

The phenomenon of false followings is rampant on Instagram. Buying followers is so normalized that throwing a couple thousand faux friends on your credit card is basically standard operating procedure for anyone trying to break out in the fashion industry. It's like buying in-game credit in World of Warcraft but somehow even dorkier.

"With such a saturated market, it's hard for bloggers with small or even medium-sized audiences to get noticed," reads an expose in Racked. "Originality doesn't get bloggers noticed anymore—numbers do."

On a Saturday morning, I pull up iDigic.com's gaudy orange portal to fame. They price a 1,000-follower boost at $9.95. At that valuation, I could amass a mirror of Dan Bilzerian's $100 million empire for a mere $59,988.

I sign Camper up for 500 robo-cronies in an effort to keep my transgression as discreet as possible.

The delivery starts immediately. A man dressed as a sultan with 11 posts pops up in my list of followers. Within seconds, 16 others join him. Then a hundred, none of them dogs, most of them amalgams of popular Instagram tropes like beach selfies and CrossFit action shots. By the time Camper's up to 800 followers, there are at least a dozen accounts with Meg Ryan as their profile pic in my inbox. One particularly prescient account's bio reads "Popular person in Instagram is happy person! Join us!"

I am exhilarated.

However, as the serotonin rush of the sudden swell fades, a sense of guilt invades. Authenticity is a cardinal value in the Instadog circle, and accusing your peers of falsifying their fanbase is akin to slander. If my fraud is discovered, I'll become a pariah.

Simpson, Peterson, and Wellens have all been accused of buying followers. All of them are vehement that their stockpile was genuinely accrued. Though she too professes her innocence, Oliver understands why, in 2015, an upstart might resort to cheating in order to gain a foothold.

"People are looking at getting those sponsorships, so they buy followers and say things like, 'Share my page and I'll share yours!'" she says. "It's definitely a way people get noticed. That's how you be successful, when you get a ton of followers."

Wellens is less understanding. To her, the "fake it 'til you make it" mentality undermines the actual achievement of getting big. "It's common, and a lot of people buy likes, too, but I think it's a little shady," she says. "It's kind of a slap in the face of people who worked hard on their account and gained the followers on their own."

At this point in my smutty crusade for fame, I've had time to reconcile becoming a pariah. Nearly a year in, I've only managed 826 followers, 500 of them robots. From my standpoint, BarkBox and Buzzfeed are mirages on my hellscape of obscurity. This is when things start to get dark.

Scratching the Underbelly

There is nothing as sacred and indomitable in my life as Camper. He will be the ring bearer in my wedding. I will, lord willing, spend the next decade or so waking to his whimpers, rousing myself every morning to gather his fetid little droppings in plastic bags as he stands there, prodigious and majestic as any beast ever digitized into an image. Because of this, there is nothing I am more sensitive about than his failure to catch on as a celebridog.

As with any online forum, dog Instagram is rife with haters. Jealous owners conspire against their peers in private messages. Butthurt trolls lurk in the comment sections to trash thriving rivals. First, they scrutinize the legitimacy of your follower account, but then they come right for you and your dog.

"After getting featured on Dogs of Instagram or something like that is when someone will go through your account and leave rude comments," Simpson says. "There was one [picture] where Kovu's nails were a little long, and they were like, 'His nails are too long, you don't take care of your dog!'"

Simpson has also been called an abuser for making Kovu pose in Build-a-Bear sunglasses, but alarmist critique like that is easy to brush off. No one in the North Star State has been more victimized by the pitchfork-wielding masses than Wellens, who began her Instagram career with her four-year-old red merle Aussie Bella before tragedy derailed her campaign.

Though Bella was a patient poser in front of the lens, her disposition off-camera eventually deteriorated. She began exhibiting red alert aggressiveness, snapping dangerously at Wellens in her episodes. Wellens tried to train her out of it, but the effort was ultimately a failure. Right after Christmas 2014, Wellens made the unenviable decision to have Bella euthanized and found herself the target of mass outrage.

"That was really hard," she says. "People were commenting. They were sending me messages on my personal Facebook and going through my friend list and adding all my friends and sending them hate messages. I was gonna delete my account, but I decided not to."

A bullish organization named Bella's Voice still persists on Facebook today, its 972 supporters insisting that Wellens opted for euthanasia in order to get attention. The group sent a petition to Sen. Amy Klobuchar with 3,696 signatories in an effort to intervene and save Bella, and when they found out Wellens had gotten Loki, they pestered the breeder to renege on the adoption.

"About 1,000 or 2,000 people unfollowed me," she says. "You think people would be that crazy over a human, but not over one dog. My Instagram was all over the place. It wasn't very fun." Things have calmed since the brand switch to @lokithegoldengod, and even though Bella's Voice continues to lobby her corporate partners to drop their sponsorship, Wellens is still unerringly positive.

"I'm just trying to put [Loki] out there as a happy account," she says. "When people go through my feed, I want them to see how happy he is so they can feel happy when they see the post."

The internet is of course a sewer, but I'm dismayed that the bloodthirsty, indiscriminate yap of that sewer threatens such an outwardly innocent faction. After hearing Wellens' story, I realize that I'm more likely to become one of those jaded commenters than I am to rise to her or Van Buren's or Peterson's or even Mooty's level.

I've spent the last half-year dedicating myself to mindlessly manufacturing success at the expense of my morality. The one translatable quality from every local celebridog owner I spoke with is that they're genuinely good people. They're not out to exploit their pets for a turn at stardom, and shysters like me don't belong among their ranks.

Hangdog in Defeat

They say that dogs can sense people's intentions, and it's become obvious that Instagram has the same capacity.

When Camper meets Kovu, he's nonplussed. Lacking the frontal lobe to rationalize the prestige that 127,000 followers affords a dog, he walks over to the stubby, whimpering dachshund and upends him with his snout to get a familiarizing whiff of Kovu's manhood. Formalities exchanged, he collapses under my chair and sighs in the sunlight, a sensation he audibly prefers to the buzz of an Instagram alert.

"It's just posting pictures on Instagram," Simpson says, as if she's speaking for Camper. "I try to just stay in the mindframe that I'm posting for myself for fun, because otherwise you get too wrapped up in everything and lose focus on what you're doing."

Throughout my quest, the one thing that's constantly pissed me off is how cavalier prominent dog owners are about their prominence. But Ono's perfunctory assertion that a dog being a dog is the most beautiful thing seems to be the ethos of the average Minnesota dog 'Grammer.

"It's pretty easy, you just post a picture with a caption and go on with your life," Wellens told me during our interview, a statement that, at the time, infuriated me. But now, watching my prosaic little hound laze indifferently in the shadow of a superstar, it's clear that unscrupulous behavior is not the secret to Instagram fame. Authenticity is.

It occurs to me that, by scheming and gaming, planning posts and recording results, I've rendered Camper's account as robotic as the mock sultans and Meg Ryan impersonators I paid for in my mentions. I take the dog home, and he collapses onto the sofa, absently gnawing on his hind paw like he sometimes does. It's grippingly adorable. The kind of cute that's irresponsible to hoard.

I brandish my camera, focus the lens, and fire the shutter. In under an hour, the picture has 50 likes, a new plateau for Camper. A devilishly familiar feeling sets in. The serotonin is delicious, and I can't help but fantasize about what 100 would feel like.