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…

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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 €55 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 1,224 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 €390,000 a year, 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.

Ber­tie at the start of his quest for so­cial me­dia su­per­star­dom – a walk in the park, surely?

LIKES 190 Ber­tie eyes up a new post and watches his fol­low­ers grow on In­sta­gram, with just a lit­tle help from his owner and best ‘fren’ Kate



Ber­tie cosies up to Kate’s boyfriend Jono

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