here have been numerous internet stars in the animal world almost as long as the internet has been a thing. From Doge and Cheems to Limecat and Longcat, meme culture has a long-standing history and love for animals of all types. Although relatively new on the scene compared to the likes of web legends such as Keyboard Cat, Nelson the bull terrier, or Walter as he’s better known among the Dogelore world and beyond, has become quite an iconic face in memes over the last couple of years. Curious about the dog behind the meme, we caught up with Nelson’s owner Victoria Leigh, or Waltermom, to get the inside scoop on who this pupper is, how he transcended into meme mythos, and what the two of them make of this whole sensation — straight from the doggo’s mouth. Of course Nelson can speak English … haven’t you seen his tweets?
Q: Welcome, Victoria. Thanks for chatting with us. Would like to begin by introducing yourself a bit for those who aren’t familiar with you and Nelson?
A: Thanks for having me! I'm Victoria, aka "Waltermom." I'm a 27-year-old nerd from Texas currently working as a full-time freelance writer, managing Nelson's social media on the side.
Q: Take us back to the earliest memories with Nelson. When did you get him, how did he come into your life, and where does his name come from?
A: My first memory of little Nelson was seeing his newborn photo on the AKC Marketplace, where I was looking for bull terrier puppies from responsible breeders in my region. I'd been reading up on bull terriers for months, recently moved into a house with a backyard and was ready to get my dream dog. I knew I wanted an all-white bully male, and there he was — the only one in his litter. I got in touch with the breeder that same day, then I had several weeks to buy all the puppy essentials.
I visited the breeder's home on September 10, 2017, to pick my little guy up. The crazy thing is that Nelson was the first bull terrier I ever saw in real life, followed by his sweet mother, Luna, the family dog. Nelson's name was decided on long before he was born. Like I said, I had a dream dog. It's hard to explain, but the all-white bull terrier boy named Nelson already existed in my head. I was just waiting for his real-life counterpart to appear.
Q: In November 2016, you started the PupperNelson Twitter account and began posting images of him online. What was the original intent behind the profile and what did you want to do with it?
A: Nelson's Twitter was originally a throwaway side account of some kind, probably used to repeatedly vote in some hashtag contest like the People's Choice Awards. No idea. [laughs] When I decided in 2017 that I wanted to make a Twitter for my puppy, it was easier to just repurpose an account I already had than make a new one. The original intent was just to document his puppyhood. I knew he was going to grow fast, and I knew I'd be taking a lot of pictures. I wanted to make sure I didn't just lose them in the depths of an endless camera roll. I wasn't setting out to make him a star. I wanted a scrapbook of his life to look back on someday.
I decided to write his tweets in the first-person, as though Nelson was speaking because it made the project more creatively stimulating for me to give him a voice rather than narrate for him. He gained followers slowly until his first birthday on July 15, 2018, when he went viral for the first time. Things picked up a bit after that, but I had no idea what was coming down the pipe.
Q: Skipping forward to September 2018, you uploaded the photo of Nelson to Twitter with the caption “when u open the front-facing camera on accident” that ultimately spawned his usage in memes. Could you elaborate on this specific post, why you did it, what your reaction to it was, and when you noticed it starting to take off?
A: The hard thing about running a dog's Twitter account is trying to make their life appear more interesting than it is. Nelson's real-life schedule is pretty standard for a dog: eat, poop, nap, play, sleep, repeat. There's not a lot of variation from day-to-day. I'm not big on having him purposefully pose in certain places or with certain props. I prefer to just let him live his doggy life, and sometimes I put a phone camera in his face. All that to say, I'm always halfway watching for him to do something extra cute, curious or visually interesting.
(Walter enjoying one of his favorite activities: taking a nap.)
That night we were sitting on the couch watching who knows what on Netflix. He sat up and started barking at something outside the window across the room. That's nothing abnormal, but I had my phone with me and thought, "Hmm. This tense, focused Nelson could make an interesting photo."
I snapped a series of pictures, slowly moving the phone around until it was facing him head-on. “The Photo” was taken in the tiny span of time where his mouth closed in between two barks. It was a dynamic moment captured in a still image. I knew immediately that it was, A) hilarious, and B) with the right caption, relatable — so I wasn't exactly surprised when the tweet performed well. Hilarious, relatable animal photos are popular, after all.
Q: So then in the following weeks and months, Nelson’s image began being implemented in various memes on sites such as Reddit and Twitter before becoming known as “Walter” in the meme world. Do you recall when you started seeing his face used in such memes, and how did you react to this?
A: Yup. This is where things went crazy. The first time I saw his face used as a meme was on Facebook. Some acquaintance had shared a post on their timeline. It was Nelson's photo, captioned, “Every middle-aged white men’s profile picture on FB, and it’s posted 12 times.” It had more than 60,000 shares, 13,000 comments and 10,000 likes. There was no attribution or link to Nelson's Twitter. It had TRULY gone viral, out of its original context. Saved and shared from friend to friend, used to make other jokes, and now somehow appearing on my own social media feed.
Obviously, my immediate reaction was shock and amusement. There was also a bit of possessiveness or jealousy in there somewhere because the post had gotten more interaction than his original tweet. It was difficult, at first, to process that thousands of people had seen Nelson's face but had no idea who he was or where the image came from.
It only got more complicated as he was meshed with the "Walter" meme and had a new identity thrust upon him. Even today, I still get a few comments every week from people discovering Nelson for the first time, like, "I thought his name was Walter?!" It's hard to explain to people who don't know that "Walter" is its own meme too!
Ultimately, once I realized it was out of my hands and there was nothing I could do to contain the spread, I learned to just roll with it. Now when I see memes come across Facebook of all the staring animals, Nelson included, on a COVID-19 Zoom call, I just laugh, and I feel honored to know my silly little dog is making people smile.
Q: During that timeframe of Nelson being transformed into his meme persona of Walter, how savvy were you with memes and internet culture in general? Was this meme your first introduction to them, or were you already well-versed in such things?
A: I've been online since the early 2000s, so I knew the basics. Over the years, I was familiar with the biggies like LOLcats, Doge, Limecat, O RLY?, etc. I was active on Tumblr during the heyday of Glee fandom, which was probably the time I was most knowledgeable about current internet culture. I was around to witness Tumblr memes like Moon Moon take off.
In 2015, I graduated from college, Glee ended, and I quickly started to feel exhausted and "too old" for fandom drama and internet shenanigans. Apart from what feels like an obligation to keep up with the basic developments of Walterlore and Dogelore, I largely leave memes alone these days. I see a lot of them come and go, and I often have no idea what's going on.
Q: Hearing the reactions from friends and family is always an interesting angle too, especially if they aren’t very knowledgeable of memes. So what did your family and friends think of Nelson becoming a meme sensation? How did they respond?
A: My family and friends share my shock and amusement at Nelson's meme fame. I talk with my mom about literally everything in my life, so she knows enough now about Dogelore that we can carry on conversations about Walter or Cheems.
Q: What about Nelson himself? How do you think he feels about becoming an internet meme? Could you ask him and translate it for us?
A: One of my favorite things about all of this is that Nelson has no idea. It's kind of amazing to think of how beloved he is by thousands of people around the world, and he's just over there living his life, none the wiser. If he could grasp the concept of his fame, I honestly think he'd be a little big-headed about it. He's a bull terrier, after all. They're plucky, cheerful, stubborn dogs. I'd say, "Nelson, it's bedtime," and he'd reply, "Nelson is famous. Nelson doesn't have to go to bed yet."
But there's truly nothing he loves more than people. I'm an introvert with social anxiety, so I'd much rather avoid strangers, but if we're out on a walk and someone else goes past us, Nelson immediately wants to be their best friend. He'll fall down for belly rubs two seconds after meeting someone. If he knew just how many people loved him and wanted to pet him, he'd probably pop from joy.
Q: Of all the memes featuring Nelson and Walter, which ones are some of your personal favorites? Any particular versions? Also, have you ever personally made any after that initial post that you can share?
A: I really enjoy wholesome Walter memes, especially ones where he is portrayed as a youngster or is simply SUPER PASSIONATE about fire trucks and monster trucks. I also love those that are simple enough to stand on their own without knowing a lot of (or any) Dogelore context. And puns like "Walterburger" will never get old.
(Two of Victoria's favorite Walter memes.)
I haven't really made any Walter memes myself, but I like to lean into the lore on Nelson's social media because I know it makes people smile. He's gotten stuffed fire trucks and monster trucks, for example!
I like fire trucks and moster trucks
— 🐶 NELSON (@PupperNelson) August 1, 2020
Q: Nelson, or Walter, has quite a history in lesser-known corners of the web, such as the /r/Dogelore subreddit where he’s a recurring character in the universe. Are you familiar with his use in such memes and communities? What do you make of those instances?
A: I'm vaguely familiar with his deeper roots in the Dogelore universe. I'm too busy taking care of the real Nelson to spend a lot of time on it, but I do visit the r/Dogelore and r/Walterlore subreddits occasionally to see what sort of shenanigans Walter's getting up to.
I remember when Doge memes first began making the rounds online with their colorful Comic Sans. Such wow. Kabosu is probably one of the best-known dogs on the web, and it blows my mind to think that Nelson's face may carry a similar level of recognizability.
Q: Aside from those including Nelson, what do you think about memes in general? Do you like or dislike them as a whole, and has the personal experience of being on the other side of one changed this opinion in any way?
A: I like memes in their most basic format — jokes that marry text and images. I'll always enjoy a good, innocent joke. But these days, I feel like much of the meme format itself has been repurposed to sow criticism, negativity and misinformation, especially with regards to politics, and especially on platforms like Facebook.
Q: So at just over two years of the original post propelling Nelson into memedom, he definitely seems to have a loving following. The Twitter account now even has over 100,000 followers. How much of an impact did the meme have on this, and what’s his fanbase like online?
A: His catapult into meme status has had a major influence on his following, though it seems more pronounced on Instagram and TikTok than it is on Twitter. Twitter seems to have a lot of users who are just interested in cute dogs, whereas Instagram and TikTok are meme-heavy platforms with thousands of people who follow Nelson because he is "Walter." A significant percentage of Nelson's followers showed up because of his meme status, but it's gratifying to see that a lot of them stick around just because they like Nelson for being Nelson.
Fan interactions are something else! Every time Nelson posts on Instagram, I spend a lot of time responding to requests for birthday wishes in the comments. I'm amazed, too, at all the fanart people draw, whether they intend it as Nelson fanart or a representation of the "Walter" character.
Q: Given his notable fanbase, as well as his relatively well-known image, have you ever capitalized on Nelson’s fame? If you have, can you tell us how and what the overall effect has been on your personal life?
A: I'd never planned to monetize Nelson, but once his image took on a life of its own, there became a market for merchandise that was going to be filled by someone. I don't have the knowledge, time or resources to navigate real brand development or product manufacturing, but I launched a Redbubble in August 2019 that offers print-on-demand options like shirts, phone cases and posters.
I receive a very small profit margin of the retail price, but it usually nets around $200 a month after taxes. Due to the unpredictable nature of my professional life (self-employed freelance writer with no benefits), that income is a big help. It covers things like dog food, chews, toys and vet bills. When people buy stuff from Nelson's shop, they basically put kibble in his bowl.
Q: Alright, I’d like to hear more about Nelson himself for these last few questions. Can you tell us how old he is currently? Also, what’s his demeanor like? Does he have any interesting behaviors or any funny quirks that you can share?
A: He's three years old. He was born on July 15, 2017. His demeanor and personality are hard to describe because he sort of runs the gamut. In some ways, he's incredibly chill and lazy. He spends most of the day napping. In other ways, he's very intense and over-the-top, like how excited he gets when people come over. He's fearless, sometimes to the point of stupidity, but all in all, he's a pretty well-adjusted dog.
The wildest quirk he has is the bull terrier "hucklebutt." For some reason, his breed has random bouts of zoomies where they'll spin around in super-tight circles or bunch themselves up like a loaded spring and gallop around a room. Nelson frequently smacks into walls and dives into the couch cushions. All I can do is get out of the way!
Q: Is Nelson an only-dog, or does he have any other pet siblings? If so, how does he get along with them, and are they jealous of his fame?
A: Nelson is far from an only-child. I basically have a small zoo. There's Nelson, of course, Baxter the tuxedo cat, my oldest boy, Pippa the one-eyed tortoiseshell cat, Trix the leopard gecko, adopted this year, Sue the leopard gecko, adopted this year, and Apollo the halfmoon betta boy, the youngest member of the family.
Nelson and my other pets largely live separate lives. My house is divided by a baby gate to keep Nelson and the cats apart. He loves his cat siblings and desperately wants to be friends, but they just can't quite get comfortable with his excitable personality. If they're jealous of Nelson's popularity, they haven't told me so! Apollo and the geckos each have their own Instagrams (betta.apollo, geckosue.geckotrix), so they really shouldn't be upset.
Q: Living the life of an internet star, what are some of Nelson’s favorite ways to spend his time, and what are some of his favorite things?
A: Nelson loves naps. He naps in his bed. He naps in chairs. He naps on the couch. He naps in the corner. He naps on the patio. He naps out in the sunshine. He spends a great deal of his time napping. He also enjoys walks, snacks, playing fetch (but only indoors?), murdering innocent opossums that make the mistake of coming into his yard and chewing on wood furniture.
Q: Nelson is just one of the many meme-animals turned internet phenomena, so what are some of you guys’ favorite internet-animal stars of all-time? Does Nelson have any influences or role models he looks up to?
A: Of course we love Kabosu and admire the way she and the Doge character paved the way for Walter, but my most favorite meme animal ever is probably Cheems. He's precious. I just want to hold him in my arms, give him cheemsburgers and protect him at all costs. Balltze and Nelson have interacted a few times on Instagram and Twitter, and it's a real delight. Nelson and I don't really have any role models we try to emulate, but we do love to follow other animal accounts. Some favorites include The Golden Ratio, Rex the TV Terrier and Pavlov and Maslow.
Q: Knowing now what transpired after posting that seemingly random image on his Twitter in 2018, do you fully embrace what Nelson’s become, or do you wish you could take it back or simply handle anything differently looking back on it all?
A: Knowing what I know now, there are very few things I would have done differently if I had to go back and do this all again. There have been a few bad days when I imagined how much simpler life would be like if I'd never created the @PupperNelson social media accounts at all, but for the most part, I'm more than happy to adopt "Walter" as a weird, sort-of second dog. The best part of his popularity is that it's made me cherish Nelson even more. I can't help but feel lucky to be his person when thousands of strangers have showered him with love. He's definitely a special pupper!
Victoria Leigh is a full-time freelance writer and the owner of Nelson the Bull Terrier, who's better known as the meme Walter. You can follow along with their adventures on Twitter @PupperNelson and @byVictoriaLeigh, on Instagram and TikTok or find merch and more on their website and Redbubble.