Pet platforms: CMC canine celebrity Theo connects with students virtually

A man walks while holding a small, yellow dog.
Theo, also known as CMC Theo, has a very popular Instagram followed by students, parents and prospective students of the 5Cs. (Courtesy: Priya Junnar)

When Claremont McKenna College President Hiram Chodosh and his wife Priya Junnar, director of the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, became puppy parents in 2017, they decided to introduce their new labradoodle, Theo, to students during a thesis surge session. As seniors played with the 8-week-old puppy in the spirit of stress relief, they instantly fell in love.

“It was the ultimate pet therapy session, except in this case, it wasn’t a rental pet — it was a pet that really belonged,” Chodosh said. “And so the students have taken to him really beautifully.”

With everyone snapping photos, the CMC Office of Public Affairs and Communications came up with the idea of an Instagram account for Theo, according to Junnar. 

“It was actually the public affairs people who said, ‘Oh my god, this is like the campus dog, and we want to get people to know him and to watch him grow up,’” she said.

Thus, the Instagram account @cmctheo came to be. The account has 1,172 followers, including students and parents across the 5Cs as well as prospective students, according to Chodosh.

“Someone will just see us walking in the Village, and they’ll say, ‘Is that CMC Theo?’” he said. “They know him virtually before they’ve even met him. One day our son was walking him around the campus, and someone said to him, ‘Why do you get to walk Theo?’” 

“And I have to remind people that his name is not CMC Theo — it’s Theo!” Junnar said. 

Growing up in this social environment, Theo has become an ambassador for CMC. Pre-coronavirus pandemic, many student organizations and programs invited Theo to events — such as those soliciting club members — and students enjoyed taking him to emotionally difficult conversations as a source of comfort. 

“He has these sort of informal roles that we haven’t tried to promote for him, but students have sought him out in certain instances,” Junnar said.

So when the pandemic sent students home, Theo was “super confused,” she said.

“We would go for a walk on campus, and he just had this look like, ‘Wait, what happened? Where is everyone?’” she said. 

Because every successful institutional Instagram needs a plan, Junnar said she and Chodosh pivoted and aimed for weekly posting related to what CMC students were doing or how they might be feeling. For example, one post showed Theo working on “his” thesis — looking at graphs students sent Junnar from their theses.

“I wanted people to know that … Theo’s missing everyone, without having him just wallow or just, being all sad,” she said. 

Junnar said the account gained more followers as a result of the new virtual environment, especially during the spring semester. However, working from home blurs the line between work life and personal life, an important distinction for the Instagram account, she said. 

I’m just so grateful that everyone knows him and treats him kind of like this co-student, or like a family [member].” — Priya Junnar

“He’s our personal dog, and we do things with him at home, and we go on hikes and we do other things that have nothing to do with the college,” Junnar said. “But then, to me it would feel weird to then be posting something that’s more personal and family into this sort of institutional framework.”

Because of this, brainstorming new ideas for posts during quarantine has been difficult, according to Junnar.

“The posts are limited, because you kind of want him to be on campus or with students — you want him to be doing something that’s 5C-related,” she said. “So I think you have to walk that line really carefully. Therefore, I think there are not as many posts because you almost have to have a product manager devoted to Theo, following him around, taking the right pictures.”

Whether the 5Cs are in person or virtual, Chodosh and Junnar are grateful for the calming, unifying force Theo brings to the community.

“A dog — and a cat, for some people — brings so much to a family, and I’m just so grateful that everyone knows him and treats him kind of like this co-student, or like a family [member],” Junnar said.


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