In 2013, Elias Friedman unexpectedly lost his job in corporate marketing and suddenly needed to stay busy and keep his creativity on boil. Scrolling through Instagram, he recognized the success of pages like The Sartorialist and Humans of New York, which spotlighted humans met on the streets of Manhattan and shared short stories about their lives. Friedman thought it could be fun to riff on the idea with dogs as the subjects. He says, “In the beginning I knew it was certainly a frivolous pursuit, but I also knew that one day this could be a bigger thing than just photos of dogs, that this could be a big storytelling platform and bring together a larger, more curious and sympathetic dog community.”
Today, Friedman has photographed tens of thousands of dogs from all over the world, authored a New York Times best-selling book, and has turned The Dogist into a true business with an Instagram following of four million people, a website, a podcast, and branded goods. “This is more profound than just pictures of golden retriever puppies,” he says. “There’s something more rich here. Initially I didn’t have as much of a perspective about how important The Dogist could become. It’s sophisticated, it’s silly, it’s real. It’s an artistic project but it’s largely a documentary. We’re telling our stories as accurately as we can about dogs because they can’t speak for themselves, so we have to take their owners’ word for it, and you hear these inspiring, emotional stories from people who open up about their dogs, and it really moves you.”
Recognizing the social responsibility that The Dogist has, Friedman and his team recently launched The Dogist Fund, which is a philanthropic initiative to raise money for rescue dogs, dog rehabilitation, and working dogs. When Friedman isn’t shooting on the streets, he’s at home with his husky mix, Elsa, who he got a little over a year ago while quarantining in Massachusetts. He laughs, “It started as a foster idea but ended up being a foster fail, as they say. I’ve heard that story many times over the years, and now I can attest to it personally. They win us over.”
In 2016 Isabel Klee was a senior in college, trying to decide what to do after graduation. One morning as she prepared for class, she noticed The Dogist was hiring. “I’ve always been obsessed with dogs,” she says. “As a kid I really wanted a dog — and I actually pretended to be a dog — until my parents agreed to let me have one. Like, I walked on all fours, I didn’t speak, and ate my food on the floor. It was ridiculous, but eventually they gave in.” Klee applied to The Dogist on her way to class, and soon after, she got the good news that she’d beaten out several hundred applicants to become Friedman’s assistant.
“More than an assistant, he needed somebody that he got along with and could spend a lot of time with,” Klee says. “He reminded me of my older brother, and I reminded him of his younger sister, and immediately we kind of fell into this brother-sister dynamic. He is a quiet guy, and I am the opposite, so if he didn’t want to exert himself socially, I could turn on the charm and pick up the slack. As we grew, it was a no-brainer that I would grow with him.” Five years in, Klee is now director of content, which is a perfect role for her, seeing how as a teenager she launched a YouTube account and launched social media projects that were picked up by big-name outlets. Klee says, “I feel so lucky that I now have a job that I care so much about and that’s not bullshit. The path that I’m on is exactly what I would have predicted for myself.”
Klee is never far from her three-year-old “part dog, part fox,” Simon, who she discovered through Korean K9 Rescue, which finds families for homeless and mistreated dogs in South Korea. She says, “He definitely has attitude. Sometimes he just looks at me and growls and moans to get me up and moving when I have stuff to do, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I don’t want a perfect dog.”
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Throughout college, Jacquelyn Sawyer worked as a veterinarian technician, thinking she would become a vet upon graduation, but then she fell off of a horse, broke her back, and was no longer able to be on her feet all day. She pivoted her career focus to marketing, and after six years in the industry, accepted a job at an agency that happened to represent The Dogist. “I worked with The Dogist as a client for about a year prior to officially joining the team in March 2020. I quickly fell in love with the brand and became obsessed with everything Dogist, and I spent the majority of my time working on their side of the business, as opposed to my other roles.”
Now Sawyer is director of partnerships, which means she manages the contracting, negotiating, and logistical issues around brands and people interested in partnering with The Dogist. “If there is a common theme on all of my calls with brands and companies, it’s that dogs never go out of style, and that dogs bring people joy,” Sawyer says. “We don’t necessarily automatically associate dogs with brands that are outside of the pet industry — clothing brands, furniture companies, car manufacturers — but one thing I always hear them say is, “Oh, every time we have a dog in our advertisements, they perform 10 times better than without a dog.” Sawyer sees ample opportunities for The Dogist to branch into new mediums, like documentaries and series shows, but she is most excited to further develop The Dogist Fund.
“Whether it’s funding a spay and neuter clinic in an underserved part of the world, rescuing dogs off the street, or eventually one day having a sanctuary of our own — I think the possibilities are endless.” Sawyer has a nine-year-old Goldendoodle named Brody — “He’s literally a medical nightmare with every problem known to mankind and has had more surgeries than I can count” — and a one-year-old Lab-hound mix, Artie, that she kept after fostering a six-pup litter this past winter.
At age 18, doctors misdiagnosed Kate Speer with bipolar disorder, and the treatment she received created psychosis, so she spent the next decade in and out of psych wards, fighting to graduate college, and drowning in depression. In her late 20s, told she would move into a long-term mental health facility, Speer found a trauma specialist who recognized her misdiagnosis and helped her start rebuilding. Speer says, “At that point I couldn’t leave the house during daylight, I didn’t have a social circle, I didn’t have a job, I had nothing.”
After doing exposure therapy for two years, she decided she wanted a dog and brought home a Bernese mountain dog puppy named Waffle. “At this point, I was still hallucinating, and Waffle picked up the most amazing things,” Speer says. “She started to smell — literally smell — the chemical changes in my body.” With a panic attack sweat-soaked tee and a 10-pound bag of bacon, Speer taught Waffle how to detect changes in her cortisol level and cue for emotional support during an episode, and it worked. “Waffle empowered me to enter spaces that I never even thought I could enter, and it just propelled me forward. I started to have more friends, I started to work, and I realized I could function again.”
In 2019 Speer shared her unbelievable story in a TEDx talk and at speaking arrangements throughout New York City, which is how she met Elias Friedman and first got involved with The Dogist. “I had built a career for myself just in those last three years,” Speer says. “As I trained Waffle, I had scaled a small start-up locally and then moved on to a coffee company, and I told Elias it would be ridiculous not to grow the company beyond social media. I said he needed to bring in 100 of the best start-up CEOs with pitches for business plans. He asked me to do one, so I built out a pitch, went back to New York, and it turned out he didn’t put out a call. He didn’t ask for anybody else.”
When Speer isn’t running The Dogist, she is a full-time mental health advocate and is training her six-month-old English Labrador, Tugboat.
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