On Tinder, Avery Chuang developed a bad habit: She almost always swiped right on guys with a ridiculously adorable dog photo. It’s not a high standard to go by, the 25-year-old in Elk Grove, California, admitted, but it helped her find men who are dog owners like herself — presuming that, of course, the featured pup is theirs.
She encountered her fair share of dog-baiters on dating apps (which she no longer uses since they are “addictive and demoralizing”). Most men were upfront in conversation with Chuang, but a few did slip through the cracks until she pieced it together.
There was a guy Chuang found attractive and charming and normal — until he turned around and questioned her for probing about his dog. And there was another who profusely apologized for displaying a friendly corgi that wasn’t his (after she called him out) and then ghosted her.
Dogs, notably adorable photos of dogs, are a ubiquitous aspect of dating. They’re convenient icebreakers on apps and on first dates. They add a nugget of personality to a profile. On Apple’s App Store, Bumble features a photo of a bespectacled man cuddling a goldendoodle to insinuate how likable that is. There’s also Dig, a new dating app specifically for dog owners.
This cultural obsession with dogs on the apps has spiraled into another problem: Daters are posting photos of pups they don’t own, to attract matches. “Dogfishing” is not exactly a lie — the person did take a photo with that dog — but to some daters, it feels like a veiled form of deception. And things can get awkward fast when a date realizes that the pet in the profile solely exists as bait.
“That’s the main thing: Stop borrowing dogs,” said Erika Ettin, an online dating coach in Washington. She advises her clients to curate profiles representative of their actual life. “It’s just odd when you’re using someone else’s dog online, and it seems like you’re trying too hard.”
She thinks people are faking dog ownership because it suggests that a person has nurturing qualities, especially men: A 2014 survey of Match.com users showed that on the site, more women sought out men who have dogs than the other way around. “Sometimes women subconsciously equate things like how a man treats his dog is how he would treat a partner,” Ettin said.
Whenever Gaby Wolff of Ann Arbor, Michigan, swipes and sees a dog photo, she cringes at the memory of one of her most awkward dates. Sam had a promising profile. They had good banter over drinks, and at the end of the night, she was comfortable enough to suggest a dog-walking date for next time.
“The energy of the conversation changed completely, and it took me by surprise,” the 30-year-old said. Sensing her date’s hesitation, Wolff changed the topic, but the rest of the night couldn’t be redeemed. Sam later apologized for his behavior in a postdate text, admitting that he didn’t know how to explain that he didn’t own the Labrador on his Hinge profile.
“He said something along the lines of: It would’ve been too awkward to bring up,” she said. Wolff took one final profile scroll through Sam’s profile before unmatching him, and noticed that it changed: The photo of him walking a large black lab was gone, replaced with a generic photo at a bar.
Dogfishing also requires an accomplice — the dog owner. Johnny Nguyen, loves to dote on his girls — Lucy, a golden retriever, and Lulu, a Pomeranian. He’s aware that they help facilitate interactions with women, but now the 21-year-old in Sydney, Australia, has a girlfriend.
Since then, his male friends have leaped at the chance to borrow Lucy (the friendlier dog) for their own dating purposes. “They would come over with a girl, introduce her to the dog and go to the park together,” he said. This happens a few times a year.
It doesn’t bother Nguyen, but he is occasionally baffled when, on occasion, his friends don’t bring the girl to Nguyen’s apartment and instead act like Lucy is theirs. For the most part, he thinks women couldn’t care less who the dog’s owner is after a memorably fun date. That’s the tough part — getting a date in the first place.
Dog talk is a good starting point, but it doesn’t always signal compatibility. Nguyen points to his girlfriend, who is scared of his big dogs — he keeps them outside or in a separate room when she’s over. But some of his friends are still convinced that owning a dog is the easiest way to a date’s heart.
“I know of acquaintances who buy or adopt a dog as a means to attract women,” he said. “After the dog gets older, they put it up for adoption or leave it with their parents.”
Some dog owners don’t look to flaunt their pets on apps, and random shots of “borrowed pets” are given away in the dog’s interaction and pose, said Mags Nadal, a dog owner.
“Pets teach us so much about empathy and warmth,” he added. Nadal, who lives Pasadena, California, has been on a lot of dating apps but he only consistently puts up a photo with his pup Ada on one of them, OkCupid. The 31-year-old doesn’t think it makes his profile more desirable; he recalls that only one match commented on his dog at first. He feels people have preferences for which dog breeds they prefer (Nadal’s friends generally like purebreds with white or golden fur).
In person, however, Nadal thinks it makes a difference to be seen with his pet. “I have a notorious resting b—- face when I’m not smiling, and my pup gets me to smile pretty consistently,” he said.
But in the online dating world, when the search for a partner is boiled down to quick swipes, a first impression matters even more than it does in real life.
“It’s like getting your foot in the door, presenting yourself in this performative way,” Wolff said of dogfishing. “Until that impression is ruined because you have to explain yourself.”
This story was originally published at washingtonpost.com. Read it here.