Benji has the square, earnest jaw of a high school quarterback who’s about to win state. His eyes are the rich, liquid brown of a half-melted chocolate bar. His distinguished salt-and-pepper fur is very soft, silky against your hands when you stroke the fuzzy slope of his back or when you bury your face in the crook of his neck and coo that he is a good boy, the best, and also an angel. He’s like George Clooney, if Clooney were shorter and hairier, had a sense of smell that was 100,000 times better, and pooped along a north-south axis in alignment with the Earth’s magnetic field, as dogs are suspected to do. He would like to sit in my lap, if that’s all right.
Benji, a six-year-old, forty-pound blue heeler, is the canine companion of YouTube yoga celebrity Adriene Mishler. We meet outside one of his and Mishler’s favorite coffee shops, in East Austin, on an overcast morning in May. The decor is all clean lines and pale wood and concrete, the coffee beans sustainably sourced. Benji himself is dressed tastefully but minimally, in a navy-blue harness that flatters his broad chest and shoulders, and a faded navy rope leash with elegant brass accents. This is basically the extent of Benji’s regular wardrobe. He doesn’t enjoy collars or bandannas, so except for his harness and leash—which he is required to wear periodically, both for personal safety and in compliance with Austin’s leash laws—he prefers to greet the world au naturel whenever possible.
The world is happy to greet Benji in any state. Ever since he first appeared in Mishler’s life—in a box beneath a Christmas tree in 2014, as a gift from a then boyfriend—he’s been a beloved staple of her social media posts and her wildly popular YouTube channel, Yoga With Adriene, which she launched in 2012. Now the channel has over 9.9 million subscribers, many of whom have watched Benji grow from a potato-size puppy into a poised, laid-back adult who steals scenes in Mishler’s videos. Sometimes he’ll pad in front of the camera while she holds a boat pose, or he’ll languidly recline in a corner of the studio as she moves through a sun salutation. These cameos are, for some viewers, reason enough to spend twenty to forty minutes folding their bodies like napkins at a fancy restaurant. As one YouTube commenter put it, “Sometimes I show up for myself, and sometimes I show up for Benji! Because he is so cute!”
He has become famous enough in his own right that when she travels, Mishler sometimes gets messages from people who’ve spotted him and his various dog-sitters (friends of Mishler’s, usually) around East Austin without her. “I’d be on the road or in another country, and I’d see a photo like, ‘Benji’s at Tamale House!’ or ‘I just met Benji at Kinda Tropical!’ ” Mishler is used to sharing the spotlight with him. Interviewers often ask her whether they can greet Benji. “I get it,” she shrugs. “He’s a star.” Even her therapist occasionally gets distracted by Benji, Mishler says, laughing.
Benji is comfortable with the attention. At the coffee shop, he signals that he would like to be in my lap by sitting upright and placing his wide gray paws gently but insistently on my legs. His gaze is polite but frank. It is the look of someone utterly at ease in his own fur, confident that wherever he goes, everyone will be thrilled to see him.
He wears his celebrity lightly, even though he’s one of the most famous dogs in America right now. And the field is more crowded than ever. Gone are the days when only high-powered studio execs could pluck a dog (and several of its look-alikes) from obscurity and thrust it into the spotlight, à la Lassie, Wishbone, Beethoven, and even Benji’s namesake, Benji. Now any cute pet whose owner has a smartphone and ambition is a potential social media sensation. But few dogs have ascended to the vertiginous heights of canine stardom that Benji currently occupies. Giggy, the beloved Pomeranian of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and Vanderpump Rules, probably came close before his tragic passing in 2020. Then there was that terrier, Uggie, from The Artist—but that was a decade ago.
And Benji’s star is still rising. There’s even a cartoon in the works, which Mishler code-names “Benji TV.” She won’t share much about it yet, but she does say it will include lessons about mindfulness and breath control. “Who knows? Maybe Benji TV could be a series someday,” she says. Benji, meanwhile, lifts his leg to casually scratch his ear, as if to convey how nonchalant he feels about his potential TV debut. This is just the sort of thing that happens for Benji.
Benji was born on November 5, 2014 (a Scorpio: intense, mysterious). His likes, according to Mishler: tennis balls; carrots; a bagel-shaped toy he was recently gifted; his dog friends Panda and Willa. Dislikes: fart noises, which he finds scary; plastic bags on the side of the road, which he also finds scary.
He was supposedly the runt of a litter of blue heelers born right outside Round Rock, but you wonder if someone said that just to make him seem more relatable, like when a Victoria’s Secret model says she was actually really awkward in middle school. When Mishler’s boyfriend surprised her with Benji, it wasn’t a great time for a new puppy, both in an immediate sense—Mishler was hosting a big holiday party that night—but also in a larger, existential sense. As lovable as Benji was, Mishler wasn’t sure she was ready to open her heart to another dog.
Before Benji, there was Blue. Mishler got him when she was in college, in 2005, after she saw a newspaper ad for blue heeler puppies. Blue was by her side for most of her twenties, and when he died, in April 2014, Mishler was devastated. She still isn’t totally over the loss. So when her boyfriend showed her this little puppy under the Christmas tree who looked so much like Blue, she says, “I remember being like, ‘No. Nothing can replace Blue.’ I didn’t know if I could fall in love like that again.”
Her concern was short-lived. That evening, at Mishler’s annual all-female holiday party (a ritual she’s since discontinued because it became too big and popular), a tiny Benji was anointed by this powerful sisterhood, passed from woman to woman under the glow of Christmas lights. She and Benji quickly became best friends, and she says that, from a spiritual standpoint, the two of them were meant to be together.
“This is a good lesson and, I think, pertinent for where we are in the world right now,” Mishler muses, as she rubs the little white splotch between Benji’s ears, his eyelids drooping contentedly. “We heal,” she says. “We will love again. We will reunite again. Everyone knows you can’t go around heartbreak—you just have to go through it. But you will.”
Mishler credits Benji with being a grounding influence for her in her thirties. He’s very chill. She suspects people think she’s lying when she says that—heelers are working dogs, after all, bred to chase and herd 1,500-pound cattle—but she swears she’s not. Part of Benji’s chill is just his nature: Mishler says he was a “very sweet, very calm” puppy. But part of it was his being carefully, strictly nurtured. Mishler was serious about his training—creating structure, including through crate training, and establishing her dominance. It was effective. So effective that friends have asked her if she would consider writing something about how she raised Benji to be so well behaved. She’s not sure about that. “I just kind of gave it my best shot,” she says.
As if to illustrate what a good job Mishler has done, Benji stoically restrains himself from leaping forward and gobbling the cinnamon roll that a towheaded toddler, having waddled over to say hi, waves in front of him. Benji’s self-mastery would impress even the most uncompromising ascetic. The key to Benji’s success is routine. He and Mishler wake around seven or eight, and after breakfast they’ll either walk to a coffee shop or go on a trail run. If it’s an office day for Mishler, Benji will spend most of it napping on the couch behind her, distracting whomever she’s talking to over Zoom. If it’s a filming day, he’ll drift in and out of the frame, making cameo appearances whenever he feels like it. In the afternoon, he goes on another stroll, and most evenings, he moonlights as Mishler’s sous-chef, shadowing her around the kitchen before passing out in either her bed or his.
Benji also maintains a rigorous exercise regimen. He’s something of a jock—trail runs, runs around Lady Bird Lake, wild sprints after tennis balls (ball is life for Benji, as Mishler puts it). He’s a cardio guy. Athletic as he may be, though, he’s not the young pup he once was. Last February, right before the world locked down, Benji had to undergo surgery on a worn-out left ACL. At first, Mishler was worried he would never run again. Not only did he make a full recovery, however, but in the process, he became the unofficial face of the Lick Sleeve, invented by the vet who treated Benji. (Dogs can wear the sleeve, an alternative to the dreaded “cone of shame,” on their legs post-op to
keep them from licking or pulling at their stitches.)
When you’re a star, everything is potential PR—even orthopedic surgery.
Of course I let Benji onto my lap. I place my hand under his haunches and hoist him up. From his elevated seat, Benji watches the comings and goings around us, panting happily. Occasionally he repositions himself to get more comfortable or rests his broad head on my shoulder, as if we’re some sort of interspecies Mary Cassatt painting.
Benji makes missteps, seemingly as a reminder that stars are just like us. There was the time he ate twelve tamales, husks and all, that were defrosting on Mishler’s kitchen counter, and the time he accidentally ran into her face while she was weeding, fracturing her nose the day before before she was scheduled to appear on the Today show. But Mishler easily forgives him when she sees the pacifying effect Benji has on his fans, both in person and online. She believes he can bring together people who might not otherwise see eye to eye, including some who don’t share Mishler’s views.
“I’ve worked really hard to keep people around the same table that are not like-minded, and Benji is a great tool for that. It sounds so silly, and I can’t believe I’m even saying this, but he’s like a golden ticket for connecting people who wouldn’t ordinarily connect,” Mishler says. “I’ve seen people unite over Benji and joke about how they may not like my politics but they stick around for Benji.”
Mishler is probably onto something. At a time when celebrities are constantly putting their feet in their mouths and, as so many did last March, making embarrassing videos of themselves covering John Lennon songs, a star who can’t voice his opinion on health care—who can’t even tweet—has a natural appeal. It’s pretty hard to cancel a dog.
Suddenly, a truck trundles down the road behind us. Benji leaps off my lap and rushes over to Mishler’s feet. “That’s okay,” she reassures him, stroking his worried face. And then, more quietly, to me: “He’s a bit of a scaredy-cat.”
It was a startling sound, to be fair. George Clooney probably would have jumped too.
Madeleine Aggeler is a writer who lives in Austin.
This article originally appeared in the July issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Down Dog Rising.” Subscribe today.