Puppy Love

Dogster hosts photos and profiles of almost 20,000 canines

Ted Rheingold is like a lot of dog-obsessed San Franciscans. He ends his e-mails with sign-offs like "Much woof and bark" and "Bark out." He still mourns his boyhood pet, Sparky, a Dalmatian/ pointer mix who died in 1987 ("the best dog a boy could have"). He digs pups' nicknames -- he's especially fond of "Boogerbutt" -- and smiles just looking at pictures of canines. Yet the creator of Dogster, a hugely popular Web community for dog owners that launched in January and already hosts photos and profiles of almost 20,000 animals, doesn't have a hound of his own. His landlord won't allow it.

Rheingold and his wife, Molly, plan to make "dog-friendly" a top priority when they start looking for a new place, but for now Rheingold has to enjoy other people's pets. And he's got plenty to enjoy.

The enormous success of Dogster -- it's been mentioned in Wired and the New York Post and on CNN and the Howard Stern Show, among other places -- has taken Rheingold by surprise. "I didn't expect this kind of response," says the tall, dark-haired 33-year-old, who works out of a tiny room off the hallway of a Duboce Triangle flat. He was inspired to start his business by the popular online meeting place (for humans) called Friendster.

But "business" is perhaps a misnomer: Rheingold maintains Dogster, which just about breaks even, as a "labor of love." He works on the site two to three hours a day, fixing bugs, adding features, and answering e-mails; for his day job, he runs One Match Fire, a company he started that builds custom Web sites. Dogster began as a way for Rheingold to make a little money to offset "the vagaries of contracting," but it has grown well beyond what he imagined: "It's all turned out to be much more work than I expected." Even so, he says, when he and his handful of contributors work on the site, "We just sit around and laugh."

Each Dogster page displays a dog's photo (or as many as 10) and gives basic biographical information: name, breed, city, age, sex, and weight; nicknames; likes and dislikes; favorite foods, toys, and walks; and an "arrival story." Most pages are purely devotional, but some are wacko ("Sparky the Wonder Dog"), and others are tongue-in-cheek ("Bernal Heights Coyote"). There's a low-key advice column called "I Like It Ruff." Profiles can be posted for free, and Rheingold intends they always will be. He also intends to keep Dogster strictly for dogs -- though users have tried to post profiles of cats, fish, guinea pigs, birds, horses, mythological canines, stuffed animals, and (particularly after Howard Stern mentioned the site) porn.

As he scans through his favorite pages, Rheingold has few complaints about his hobby. He wishes folks weren't so demanding about new features ("People feel that Dogster is their right"), and he'd rather not get so many "long, impassioned" e-mails about the pet fight du jour (pit bulls, backyard breeders, PETA), but that's about it; his guiding principle is "fun." He's not going to add bulletin boards or listserv capabilities, in part because they can become forums for meanness. "There's a whole world of places to find out what's wrong," Rheingold says, "and most of us spend too much time on them."

Dogster has inspired at least one imitator: HamsterSter.com went live in April, created by a Georgia college student who admired Rheingold's site. There are hundreds of pet-related Web sites, of course, but Rheingold has encountered no others dedicated to posting photos of any old dog (as opposed to specific breeds). Snakester.com is, indeed, devoted to reptiles, but it doesn't post photos. Fishster.com is just a blog unrelated to piscatorial partiality; Lobster.com sells decapods to eat; Birdster.com, Ferretster.com, and Petrockster.com are all, as of this writing, unregistered. Next up for Rheingold is Catster, which he hopes to launch in early July. He's agonizing over the logo and color choices because, he insists, felines are "more chic and reserved" than dogs.

But does he like them? "I would have a cat if Molly weren't allergic." (Karen Zuercher)

Foursquare Scandal

The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, the Pentecostal group founded in 1923 by legendary faith healer Aimee Semple McPherson, will begin its annual convention at the Hilton on Tuesday, and it promises to be memorable for reasons church leaders may wish they could ignore. In March, evangelist Paul Risser resigned in humiliation as Foursquare's president and CEO after acknowledging that he had squandered $15 million of church money in two investments that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has identified as Ponzi schemes.

As media scandals go, Risser's pales in comparison to the one engineered by McPherson, the flamboyant Foursquare founder known as Sister Aimee. At the height of her career, she allegedly faked her own kidnapping while trysting in Carmel with the married sound engineer who helped broadcast her radio sermons. She died of an accidental barbiturate overdose in an Oakland hotel in 1944. To this point, no one has accused Risser of anything more than being a sucker.

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