The Founder of Dogspotting Is a Cat Person

Did the creator of the canine-centric suburban safari phenomenon just troll me?

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Jul 8 2015, 8:10pm

My personal favorite spot in Athens. Photo: Zoë Lazarides

Move over, birdwatchers. Dogspotters are coming for you.

For the uninitiated, Dogspotting is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Begun as a Facebook group founded by John Savoia, members submit pictures or typed notes of dogs they have spotted on their daily travels, and submissions are graded on a complex point system.

Dogspotting resides on a very fine line between completely serious and tongue-in-cheek, but members are passionate enough that a schism formed earlier this year over rules. Dogspotter Josh Boruff's stricter set of rules for scoring opposed Savoia's more lax, original system. Particularly, Boruff wanted small dogs to be worth zero points, which some saw as a clearly discriminatory standpoint. The debate got so heated that it eventually demanded an official vote.

Not all Dogspotters play competitively, but those that do keep score and aim to have the most points by the end of the calendar year. The appeal is somewhat akin to a suburban safari. And despite the growing obsolescence of Facebook groups, Dogspotting has become a minor phenomenon, recently surpassing 50,000 members. In fact, regular Dogspotting has become too large for the diehards to successfully monitor, and a core group of spotters have had to found a separate invite-only group called Elite Dogspotting.

To learn more about the history of this unusual pastime, I spoke to Savoia on the phone. Turns out he's a cat person.

MOTHERBOARD: So, how did Dogspotting start?
Savoia: Back in 2006 I came up with the idea of getting points for seeing dogs, and just shared it with a couple friends. This was before camera phones, and mobile internet was really not going on. So really it was just like, I wrote them down on receipts and kept them in my wallet. And then in 2008, I made the Facebook group and just added 20 or 30 friends. Most of them immediately left. It languished, and I didn't really think about it. I would think about it once every year or so. And then last summer, it was actually just about a year ago in mid-July, people started joining. I would love to find the first person who brought strangers into Dogspotting. I have no idea who it was.

And then it just mushroomed from there?
Yeah. A hundred, five hundred, a thousand...and pretty soon I had to start talking to people about, you know, either we're gonna let this thing devolve and do its own thing, or we have to start thinking about this and making legit rules.

So you have no idea where the explosion of popularity came from?
I imagine that there was one person who had a really big social media pull who joined, and everyone saw that person do it, and it just ballooned from there. But that first patient zero, I have no idea who that is.

"The posts would be up for 8 or 9 hours before we'd notice, 'Aw, fuck, someone posted their own dog.'"

And it's become really popular in Australia, right?
Early on, in the first few months where it was starting to get big, we noticed a lot of Australians were joining. And because they're on the exact opposite time frame as us, we were all pretty much asleep when they were posting dogs. The posts would be up for 8 or 9 hours before we'd notice, 'Aw, fuck, someone posted their own dog.' (Note: this is very much against the rules.) Or they'd posted Snoop Dogg or something. We now have an Australian moderator who helps by being on their time zone.

Is there a leaderboard for top scorers?
In 2014, we kept track of everyone's scores as best we could, and we had a top 50. And at the end of the year, we gave out the big prize. (Note: Savoia would only tell me what the winner received off the record, but did disclose that the 2014 winner was Barry Thorpe, an American living in Bali.)

But yeah, there is a leaderboard. Now that we have Elite Dogspotting and regular Dogspotting, for Elite Dogspotting, you have to keep track of your own score. We don't do that for you. But we do keep track of the leaderboard for regular Dogspotting as best we can. [Elite Dogspotting] is really the people who treat this as a sport and want to be at the top of their game, rather than just having fun…[it's] for people who are tired of the bullshit spots.

Spot by Pallavi Singhal, in the Indian Himalayas.

I want to talk about the war over the point system, because as someone who owns a small dog, I'm very offended by the idea that small dogs don't count under Boruff's rules.
Hey, I say small dogs count! And currently small dogs count. Josh Boruff is a bad man. He's a very bad man. I don't know if you were in the Facebook group when all that shit went down, but my computer was hacked. The night that we voted whether to reform the rules, I was unable to cast my vote. And a splinter group just managed to hijack the whole fucking thing. It was a nightmare. This thing I'd created was wrenched from my hands. Luckily I think the tide of the group really sided with me. We've kind of reached a truce with Boruff. He's still a bad man but we keep him around because he's just such a passionate dogspotter.

"I did this as the gamification of seeing dogs. I didn't start Dogspotting because I love dogs."

So the difference between the Boruffian rules and your rules is mostly just small dogs not counting?
Yeah, the scoring is a little more harsh. I feel like they're judgmental, whereas the Savoian point system, there's no judgment. Some things are worth more points than others, but we don't judge dogs. Dogs are just good creatures, on their own.

Is [Boruff] someone you know personally?
We met originally through Dogspotting, online, but when we had the summits, we met at the summits.

You have summits.
When we need to. We've had three…four summits at this point. We all get together. At this point we kind of have to. You can only communicate so much online. Sometimes you need to just all be in the same room and just hash it out.

Where do they take place?
The most recent one was New Zealand.

But you're based in the States.
Yeah, I'm in Boston.

So you went all the way to New Zealand?
We all went to New Zealand for about six days. We were in this little, cheap-ass—it was like an off-season resort, really chintzy. We just sat around, drank a lot of root beer, and thrashed and screamed and kicked. That was when we were gonna launch Elite Dogspotting. That [trip] was the runup to that.

(Note: On this point, I suspect Savoia of bullshitting me. His net roots are in Something Awful, after all—the same place that spawned Twitter power users like @fart and @weedguy420boner, who recently convinced a journalist that the BTK Killer is really into reading so-called "Weird Twitter" tweets in prison. So while the rest of his interview was pretty verifiable (for example, I am now a member of Elite Dogspotting), he refused a request for pictures from the New Zealand trip. And plane tickets to New Zealand are extremely expensive. I will not be made a fool, John.)

Do you have a dog?
No, I'm a cat person.

Are you serious?
I am a huge cat person. I have a cat, I'm petting him right now. His name is Henry.

But you must like dogs.
Of course I like dogs. But really, in the end, I did this as the gamification of seeing dogs. I didn't start Dogspotting because I love dogs.

I just think it's hysterical that the founder of Dogspotting is a cat person.
You know, it is what it is. I am who I am. I won't try to hide it. I'm proud of being a cat person.

Spot by Matt Bernard

Do you have a personal favorite spot?
I don't know that I have a single favorite spot. There was a spot pretty early on, I'd like to say last fall, of this older pug...looking kinda haggard, looking like an old drunk homeless guy, sitting on this dirty pillow on the street, and next to him is his own turd. It is just, to me, a truly moving image.

Anything else you'd like to say?
Yes! I would like to announce—we do bounty spots every once in a while, where there's like a semi-famous dog, and you get extra points if you spot this dog. And the White House just started allowing photography, and no one has yet spotted the President's dogs Bo and Sunny. I would like to announce an open bounty on photographs of Bo and Sunny.