The dog who got me through 2021: Leo the Peke made my blood pressure drop and my heart swell

On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog, went the New Yorker cartoon. Nearly 30 years later, it says so in your profile.My Instagram feed is full of dogs, or people posting as their dogs from their own accounts. Some I know well, like my sister’s sweet but vacant pug Margot.Others I have found by searching hashtags for my favourite breeds. Now I see almost as many dogs as I do friends.It makes my Instagram a relatively peaceful place – and through the pandemic, it’s been practically restorative. Pictures of cute dogs invite only joy, not self-comparison or consumerism. It is very hard to form a parasocial relationship with someone else’s pet – or so I thought, before I found @leothepeke.With his sandy centre-parted hair and long dark ears, Leo looks like a fancy rabbit, or an Ewok. He posts about his daily life in Pennsylvania, his favourite snacks and spots to sit in and, occasionally, his views on politics. Leo hates baths – but as a Democrat, he hated Trump more.

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With around 2,300 followers, Leo is not a big name among dogfluencers – he describes himself as: “Just a seven-year-old pekingese, trying to make sense of the world.” But ever since I came across his profile in 2016, Leo has been my most consistent source of joy online.

Whenever I felt overwhelmed by my inbox, or stressed by Twitter, I would scroll pictures of Leo to remember that the internet wasn’t all bad. By 2021, I was basically codependent.Just the sight of his dark eyes, gazing out from underneath his hair, makes my blood pressure drop and my heart swell.Over five years I’ve kept up with Leo through challenging home haircuts, celebrity deaths (he posted touching tributes to Anthony Bourdain and Ruth Bader Ginsburg), a Trump presidency and now a pandemic. I’ve seen him struggle, like everyone else on my Instagram .

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Last August, in an uncharacteristically long, emotional post, Leo acknowledged his “botched hair”: “Our household decided that grooming me is a luxury we shouldn’t spend on right now. No surprise – Mom’s afraid to work in schools this year … Is this our America, or am I in a very bad dream? The dereliction of duty in this administration is omnipresent.”

I responded with a supportive message. After all, Leo had brought me solace for years. His photo is even my profile picture on Instagram, meaning everybody knows me as a dog on the internet. But after his outburst, I wondered: what did I really know about Leo?

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It is fair to say that Leo, or our interlocutor, Sandra, was surprised to hear from me. After a hesitant back-and-forth, she set up an email address especially for Leo – and we began our correspondence.“From the get-go, Leo was different,” Sandra told me. Leo’s grandfather Malachy had won best in show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (held in New York) in 2012.

He had been destined to be a show dog, too, but his testicles never descended, disqualifying him.

Leo was adopted as a puppy by Sandra’s daughter, while her son started his Instagram. At first, “It was fun to match Leo’s face with the right words,” said Sandra. But then her son moved away and Sandra took over. Now she worries Leo’s posts are mundane.

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Sandra, a Democrat like Leo, tries to keep the politics to a minimum. But when she makes references to music or movies or art: “Those posts are not as well received as a cute photo of him.”

Leo is “one of the most polite dogs I’ve ever known”, Sandra wrote. He awaits his meals patiently, sits on Sandra’s lap after dinner and barks when someone rings the doorbell.

But, she added: “He has a pretty boring life.” He sleeps almost all day, never plays with his toys and only goes outside to do his business. Leo only likes to do two things: go in the car and chew on a beach towel.

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What motivates Sandra to keep up with his Instagram – “What touches my heart the most” – are the comments.One follower told her Leo reminded her of her childhood peke; another said he had provided comfort through a health crisis. “While I feel stale about his Instagram, helping a few people to have joy gives me a reason to keep posting,” Sandra said.

2021 has been a tough year for her family, too, with three deaths (including their shih-tzu Chloe, Leo’s companion) and a health scare. “I just want to move on to 2022,” Sandra wrote to me. “Next year I want to visit my grandchildren more often … I want to go to the beach and walk with the sand between my toes. I’d love to see Leo at the beach – can’t imagine him with sandy hair. And Leo would get what he loves most: being with his family, on the longest car ride of his life. Take care, Elle,” she signed off.

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I thought of Leo by the sea with sand in his hair, and of what PG Wodehouse said: “All one needs in life is two good friends, books and a pekingese.” He may be small, and a bit strange, but Leo the Peke really does add something to mine.