How 'Dogspotting' Blew Up Into the Internet's Most Uplifting Game

It was last May in Los Angeles when I realized I'd stop anywhere during any conversation -- no matter how serious -- to take a photo of a dog.

A friend was telling me about his volatile relationship as we walked down Hollywood Boulevard. His on-again-off-again girlfriend was manipulative and took advantage of his niceness and holy eff -- that's when I saw it. Standing in the doorway of a psychic's shop was a long-haired, wise-beyond-its-years pup that probably could've read the lines on my palm and told me whom I'd marry and when. I whipped out my phone and snapped its photo. Once I came up with a caption -- "Come in, my child. Only $10 for you." -- I posted it to "Dogspotting," an infectiously fun online community where people share encounters with random dogs that don't belong to them and win points and likes.

Becca Strassberg

The concept of Dogspotting is wonderfully simple -- take a photo of a random dog you meet, post it on the group's Facebook wall, and rack up accolades. Lately, people have been joining in droves. Admins receive an average of 5,000 new member requests every week.

This year Dogspotting staked out its own territory beyond the confines of Facebook, launching a brand-new app (available for both Apple and Android devices) -- something Dogspotting creator John Savoia (aka "The Dogfather") has dreamt of since the group started gaining popularity in 2014.

"I never really thought it would get to this point"

In a phone interview, Savoia, a Boston resident, described how Dogspotting transformed from an online game among a few friends, into an internet phenomenon with more than 400k members.

A fine-arts photographer, he was just walking around and taking photos of dogs "and somehow the idea of giving myself points and making the numbers go up for having seen dogs… It seemed fun."

He made the Facebook group in 2009 with just 20 or 30 of his real-life and internet friends. It wasn't until the summer of 2014 that the page saw its first big spike -- though Savoia never really knew why it took off then.

"I imagine this sort of Patient X person who had really incredible social pull found it and just decided to invite a bunch of their friends," Savoia said, "and everything just spiraled from there. All of a sudden we were getting dozens of requests when the group had sat empty for literally years.

"I never really thought it would get to this point," he added.

But as it grew, Dogspotting needed structure. Since a point system was the basis of Savoia's original idea, he and the other two founders Reid Paskiewicz and Jeff Wallen (known as "The Big Three") put a system in place that became a big reason for Dogspotting's appeal.

"A spark of joy every day"

The 12 Dogspotting regulations are pretty easy to follow. Things like "No Known Dogs" and "No Service Dogs" just mean if you know the dog or if the dog has an important job to do -- like guide the blind -- it's off-limits. The real fun comes when it's time to score a spot.

Aside from the usual suspects like +1 for "Dog," aka your "base score," you can get points for just about anything. For example:

  • Missing Component (+3): A dog with missing limbs, eyes, or other parts. An important distinction, though -- this doesn't apply to a dog who's been neutered.
  • Wizard/Goblin Portal (+3): Spotting a dog through a hole in a fence or wall.
  • Unusual Transportation (+3): Spotting a dog riding in a sidecar, scooter, trolley, or air balloon.
And then there’s Creative Bonus (+1) that anyone in the group can assign to you in the comments for basically any reason. Dogspotter Vitoria Santos Cruz spotted this guy a couple of weeks ago:

That's definitely +3 for Wizard/Goblin Portal, but then tons of users gave her creative bonuses. Keeping with the Pink Floyd reference, fellow Dogspotters assigned her +1's for "don't need no edumacation" and "WE DON'T NEED NO BORK CONTROL."

Every year a "Top Spots" album is posted, but Savoia admits that while it used to be based on points (and to some degree still is as long as users keep track of their own posts), it's now based on the number of Facebook likes a spot gets due to the sheer size of the group. Pink Floyd Doggo has over 11k likes, so he might be there at the end of 2017, but alas, that was only January and there's plenty of doggos out there to be spotted this year.

To an outsider, it might seem like rules, points, and constant moderation take the fun out of Dogspotting, but Dogspotters say the points and structure are what keep the group such an enjoyable place.

"Once you get the hang of it, [Dogspotting] is truly a spark of joy every single day," Nashville resident and Dogspotter Melanie Pherson, 40, told me. "Don't we all need more of that?"

What the bork did you just say: How to talk like a Dogspotter

"Man, is there anything better than spotting a heckin' smol floof borking at the top of its lungs?"

Translation: There is nothing more enjoyable than seeing a very small, fluffy canine barking loudly.

There's a distinct language -- an art, really -- to the group.

"It's a lot of meme culture," Savoia said. "I would love to take credit for those words, but I think they really came from not just our community, but the larger internet 'cute culture.'"

Savoia admitted that he fought against many of the terms in the beginning of Dogspotting.

"I was like, 'Doggo bad, dog good,' but then we were like, No, we're being old fogies. Let the kids say the words they want."

My quest to join the fun, and go for 10,000 likes

It's nearly impossible to spend time inside the Dogspotting community and not get the urge to join in.

Dogspotting sparked a desire in me. I decided I really wanted to say those words. I wanted to get those likes and those points. You know, really spot some fluffers and give them pats for being good boys. So I downloaded the app and set what I thought was a very reasonable goal for myself: to reach 10,000 likes on Dogspotting.

But like trying any new sport, mastery doesn't come at once. You might have flashes of greatness, but getting good at Dogspotting takes some skills, practice, and persistence. And a little luck doesn't hurt now and then.

Like when I spotted a giant, fluffy Bernese mountain dog wearing the TINIEST pink bow on its head. Like, a bow for a Barbie or a newborn baby when babies have like three strands of hair. I don't know. It was a teensy-tiny fuchsia barrette and it was so heckin' cute. It was a sight to behold but I couldn't get my phone out fast enough.

You've got to stay calm under pressure. It's fun and carefree to glimpse a cute pupper with your eyes, but it's more of a challenge to capture that magic for the crowd.

The psychic pup I spotted got almost 2,000 likes last year, and another post of mine is going strong at almost 2,500 likes -- which was pretty swell, but none of my other efforts so far have gotten me as far. Still, I've met some very cute and very good boys (and girls) in the past week or two…

  • There was Dallas, who showed up to a birthday party I attended;
  • and Nadine, the floofiest floof (in a bag!), who I hope is settling in at home with her new little baby;
  • and this little man or lady, who caused me to gasp in such joy that I had to apologize to my cab driver (because you should never gasp or scream in a car unless you're in actual danger -- and even then you should use your words).

The recently launched Dogspotting app opens up a whole new world

Dogspotting Mobile, the official Dogspotting app, launched just a few weeks ago and Savoia is still in disbelief.

"I dreamt of a little app before the word 'app' existed," he said. "It's mind-blowing for me."

Through a crowdfunding campaign and T-shirt sales, the app finally became a reality and Savoia said it brings major perks that a Facebook group doesn't.

"Analytics is huge -- actually being able to monitor our traffic and [use the] location services so we can get a sense of where people are using it.

"Also just being apart from Facebook and not having to worry about them changing [algorithms] or deciding all of our intellectual property is now theirs. Having our own thing is potentially huge."

Among other features, the app lets you check out the leaderboard (full of the all-time, weekly, and monthly top Dogspotters), keeps track of your points, and has the rules handy for you.

While Savoia's goals have been far surpassed, he still has a few desires. He wants to be on The Ellen Show, he wants to autograph something, and he wants a Dogspotting Wikipedia page. ("I have too much pride to write my own," he said.)

I had one last question for the Dogspotting founder that I felt silly for not asking sooner. "Oh my God, wait, do you have a dog?" I borked.

His answer, stated so matter-of-factly, shook me to my core. "Oh no! I'm a cat person! I'm actually holding my cat, Tiny Henry, right now.

"But, you know, you see a lot more dogs than you see cats. I like to make the number go up. I want the points!"

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Rebecca Strassberg is a staff writer at Thrillist who always swipes left on cat dads. Follow her on Twitter @strassbooger.