MAPLEWOOD, Minn. — The fur, sand and dirt flew as Tula bounced, sniffed and ran around the bank of the Mississippi River. An hour later she’d snapped thousands of photographs of her playmates.
Among the hundreds of dogs roaming Twin Cities parks every day, 4-year-old Tula is the only known pup-arazzo. A GoPro camera attached to her chest fires off a photo each half-second, fast enough to freeze the flurry of fun.
There’s the snout-in-her-face shot, the eyeball, the moment of repose, the playful pack in a tangle and the glamour shot where a drenched dog emerges from the water to shake off the drops — forming a resplendent halo of droplets and fur frozen in motion.
“I’ve always loved taking pictures of Tula,” said Susie Kixmoeller, a junior at the Blake School and the dog’s best friend. “She plays with so many dogs, but when I got close, they’d stop paying attention to each other and come over to me.”
So in January, she put the camera on Tula. The paw-level shots were both unique and fun. Inspired by social media dogs, such as @the dogist, she decided to share Tula’s work online.
Months later, Tula, whose online handle is @caninehappyhour (because off-leash dog parks are where pups can unwind without concern about passing cars, bikes or kids), has a healthy Instagram following of more than 6,000, and 1,500 friends and counting on Facebook.
Tula’s start in life was not nearly so happy.
She and her littermates were found stuffed in a birdcage near St. Cloud, Minn., explained Ken Kixmoeller, Susie’s dad.
Tula, believed to be part German shorthaired pointer, was saved by Second Chance Animal Rescue. There she was named for the bride in the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
She landed in a foster home with a friend of the Kixmoeller family. When the friend went on vacation, the Kixmoellers offered to take in Tula for the week. Destiny was set the minute she paraded through their door. “We knew there was not a chance she was leaving,” said Kim Otness, Susie’s mom.
Within minutes, Tula had claimed the living room beanbag chair as her own. The family has since installed an identical chair in every room for Tula.
Susie Kixmoeller said Tula has been a commanding but sweet diva since Day 1. “She knew she’d be loved by all of us.”
‘MUST BE SOME KIND OF HOAX’
The whole family has played a part in her newfound celebrity.
When older sister Katie Kixmoeller, who is away studying at Harvard University, saw the photos, she encouraged the family to share them broadly, starting with BuzzFeed.
“Since we had no idea what BuzzFeed even was and Susie was in the middle of midterms, Katie offered to put a BuzzFeed post together and submit it,” Otness said.
From there, it took off. A United Kingdom news agency tracked down the family through Second Chance Rescue. When the first media call came, Otness said, “We thought it was crazy — this must be some kind of hoax.”
As Susie ’s school workload intensified during the spring semester, she had to ease off her dog-park time and let her retired parents take over.
For the couple, that means several trips a week to an off-leash park, often Battle Creek in Maplewood or Minnehaha in Minneapolis.
Tula has no clue that she’s a star artist and doesn’t appear bothered at all by her camera-carrying harness. She goes wild in anticipation when handlers take it off the wall at their White Bear Lake home.
With a friendly approach, soulful brown eyes and lean, athletic build, Tula’s a popular playmate — enthusiastic but not aggressive.
The couple, too, enjoy the conversations with dog owners curious about the harness and camera. “Are you making a movie?” is usually the first question.
The conversation meanders from there, often resulting in handing over one of Tula’s “business” cards with her social media information. They’ve provided photos to interested owners. Sometimes, they hear, they’re used for holiday cards. “Who doesn’t want a picture of their dog?” Otness asked.
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NOT ALL GLAMOUR
Alas, there’s a downside to popularity.
“Since it’s gotten bigger and bigger, we feel the pressure to make the photos better,” Ken Kixmoeller said.
Well, there’s not much they can do about that — other than occasionally wipe Tula’s lens clean after she’s been splashing through water or blown through sand or dirt.
A single trip to the dog park usually yields between 7,000 and 11,000 photos. The family downloads them, dumping the crummy shots and posting the good ones. The process “is faster than you think,” Otness said. “Typically, there’s one or two good ones from an hour at the park.”
Tula’s earned a few hundred dollars from photo sales to a news outlet and there’s talk of making a book of her work. Otness said any proceeds would go to rescue organizations — a passion of Susie’s.
“There are so many dogs out there that don’t have homes,” Susie said. All they need is a willing owner. “They’re going to love you so much.”