12/03/2001 - Updated 05:43 PM ET

A Winkle — just in time

By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY

LOS ANGELES — Mr. Winkle is, to be frank, a strange dog. Strange how? Using pop music oddities as a yardstick, less like the bewildering Michael Jackson and more like the bizarre Bjork. And things have just gotten more bizarro. Before Sept. 11, Mr. Winkle had quietly made a name for himself as a Web-based favorite, with poster and calendar images of him dressed up in various guises selling by the thousands. He even found time to pose for his own children's book, What Is Mr. Winkle? (not an unreasonable question, given that at first glance he seems 100% stuffed), which recently hit stores. In short, just your average celebrity hound.


But in recent weeks, he has moved into the guru realm. People have begun e-mailing in droves — e-mailing the dog, mind you, not his owner (she prefers "Mom"), photographer Lara Jo Regan. It seems somewhere in this elfin canine is a soothing force capable of lifting folks out of a national funk.

"People are going to the Web site to get cheered up. He's an angel to a lot of folks," says Regan, 39, snuggling with the wingless wonder in her comfortably disheveled apartment in Los Feliz, just east of Hollywood.

"I think people see him as so precious and innocent that perhaps they're seeing their own fragility," she says. "But don't believe me. Read the e-mails."

Mr. Winkle's fan mail sometimes does sound as if it were meant for a four-legged Backstreet Boy. As in: "It's been hard to smile after all the horrific events of Sept. 11, but when I saw your Web site, I could do nothing but smile. Thank you so much, you adorable dog! Love, Alus."

Alus also requested pictures of a "Patriotic Mr. Winkle." Many fans have asked for that.

There's also Betsy, a depressed dog lover who washed away images of Sept. 11 by watching Mr. Winkle flash-videos on his site. ("Kiss him on the nose for me!" she implored Regan.) Even Yuri, a trucker from Moscow, wrote to say thanks for his Mr. Winkle posters, which he will use to "cheer up my little friends."

Mr. Winkle's appeal to a nation under siege isn't hard to decipher. War can be wearying. Some dogs pump up the volume — think German shepherd and you get visions of a brave canine racing after terrorists, Saint Bernard and you picture a gallant rescue dog.

But war and Mr. Winkle don't mix. He's Prozac with paws. Eyes as big as moons. A lolling tongue that rolls out like a red carpet. A Leaning Tower of Pisa stance that is eerily Chaplinesque.

You stare ... and he has you. Like a fluffy, amber-colored eraser, Mr. Winkle has wiped your mind clean of any adult concerns and replaced them with pressing questions, circa second grade.

Is he for real? He's so small, I wonder if he could fit into a Starbucks Venti-size cup? Is that Afro-style fur-do natural or a stylist's creation? Why does he trot like those Anheuser-Busch Clydesdale stallions? How come I can't stop looking at him?

Mr. Winkle's odd hold on humans didn't apply to his first owner. Regan rescued the dog five years ago from an alley in Bakersfield, Calif., "a tiny ball of fur hobbling toward me in the glow of my headlights." The 2-year-old mutt (he's Pomeranian and who knows what else, she says) was cut and bruised.

After tending to Mr. Winkle (a friend made up the silly name) for a few years, Regan began taking photos of her surreal new pal and posted them on

The ensuing avalanche of hits (averaging 2 million a month) eventually translated to 10,000-plus sales of a homemade calendar that featured the dog in different fantasy sequences. (Is he "A Hamster with a Perm"? or "An Ancient Koala"?)

Random House bit last fall, contracting for three children's books. Mr. Winkle is now on a fall tour for the first installment (the next, Winkle's World, is due in spring). He'll chat up Matt and Katie on Today on Dec. 14, and perhaps pop in on Oprah.

Winkle's magic works in weird ways. Consider his takeover of Random House.

When an assistant kept mentioning Mr. Winkle's Web site to Kate Klimo, vice president in charge of the publisher's children's division, she treated the tip as she would an annoying fly. "Where I come from," she says, "we call little dogs lunch."

Now she's calling one of them a star. "He's got this ineffable quality that's riveting," she says. "When he first came to visit us here in New York, everyone in the building got soft and squishy."

Ditto the folks at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a group you might think would have a problem with a dog being dressed up like a Barbie doll. "Most dogs would be lucky to get this much love and attention," says Lisa Lange, PETA's director of policy.

She dismisses suggestions that profiting from a dog is unethical. "I wish more people would make money being kind to animals," Lange says.

Cynics could well say that Regan's motivation for making Mr. Winkle a star is to bask in his spotlight. But her photography career wasn't in need of a boost. Regan just won the World Press Photo of the Year Award for a standout shot from a series on rural poverty for Life magazine.

And what money she has made from her dog's popularity hasn't altered her lifestyle.

"I still drive the same 1990 Ford Escort, and I still live in this cramped house, and I love it," Regan says.

"I get great joy out of sharing Mr. Winkle with the world. I'm just a conduit for his cuteness."

Today we are visiting Mr. Winkle at work. Which is to say at home, because the "sets" for his shoots are so small that they can be assembled in Regan's den.

For the record, a dry Mr. Winkle is about the size of a Cornish game hen. Wet, he just might disappear. He weighs 5 pounds, 1 ounce, "and 5 pounds, 2 ounces after a meal," his mom says.

Despite his stature, Mr. Winkle does not slink into a room. He struts in like a Marine, head and knees high, eyes alert. He usually doesn't bark, but someone has rung the doorbell. A breathless ankle-high yip fills the air. In walks Dara Folkert, his stylist.

For his next shoot, Mr. Winkle is to be dressed as a garden gnome. Folkert has brought in a real garden gnome. Let's listen in on the professionals at play:

Lara Jo: "I love the curl in the real gnome's hair. Can we get that effect?"

Dara: "We can definitely try. How about the hat? I thought the material looked just like ceramic."

Lara Jo: "It does. Let's put the jacket on him."

Mr. Winkle is passive as they wrestle him into his costume.

Dara: "He's just like a little doll."

Lara Jo: "So perfect."

Purrrrrrrr. Clark Cat, Regan's orange tabby, has padded into view. Clark has not taken kindly to his canine roommate's celebrity status, mutilating a few sets and relieving himself on a stack of Mr. Winkle posters.

"There's an active sabotage campaign going on," sighs Regan. Which has generated an idea: Clark Cat may co-star in an upcoming Mr. Winkle book, if their human wrangler can get them to pose together.

As Clark Cat stares down from an armchair at the dog-turned-gnome on the floor, you can almost hear him cackle, Hah! What a dork! The absurdity of the scene isn't lost on Regan.

"Only in America," she says with a burst of giggles, something never more needed in America than now.