Jennifer Atilémile is a Brooklyn-based Australian-French model who became the first Australian curve model to sign with Victoria’s Secret. She has also walked the runway for labels like Tommy Hilfiger and Christian Siriano, and has starred in campaigns for retailers like Bloomingdale’s and Anthropologie, too. Before her international modeling career took off, she earned double master’s degrees in journalism and international relations, and has been using her proclivity for social issues to advocate for body diversity and racial justice. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she became dog mom to a Miniature Dachshund named Napoleon, who, despite his small size, embraces big fashion and a bigger personality.
Did you grow up with dogs?
My brother was diagnosed with Asperger’s and ADHD and his therapist recommended that he get a dog to be his companion, helping him with his behavioral issues and with socializing with others. So, we got a shelter dog and it was the best thing that ever happened to him—and to our entire family. I would let the dog inside our home and cuddle on the couch and in bed with me. I think in Australia it’s more common to have dogs outside with their kennel, ‘cause it’s not as cold. But now that I’m older, I’m like, why would you not have your dog inside?!
I feel you. My dog sleeps in my bed and I can’t imagine anything else. How did you know you were ready to get a dog of your own and how did you know that Napoleon was The One?
At the start of the pandemic, I was like, cool, I’m stuck here. I’m grounded in New York City and I’m not going anywhere. Then, I started applying to foster and adopt shelter dogs. Because I’m a model with a crazy schedule, I was always traveling, never in the same place. Prior to the pandemic, I would never have been a responsible pet parent. I had definitely thought about getting a dog when I moved to New York, because I wanted to settle myself here. I wanted to create a home for myself.
“I was talking to a friend about how society has told us that we need all these things to make us happy, like a man and a job. Screw that. I want a dog. A dog is going to make me happy, and I don’t need to wait for the boyfriend to get the dog. I’ll just get the dog first!”
And then everything else will come to me. So, I had my heart set on getting a Dachshund. I’m obsessed with them. But the only Dachshunds available for adoption are ones with serious medical problems because that’s why people put them in shelters. I feel like it’s really selfish, but I just knew that I didn’t want my first dog to be a special needs dog. I started looking for proper breeders, not puppy mills, and I put my name down for a litter. The woman called me and said, “Actually, we’ve got some now. Would you like one?” I made the decision in 24 hours. I believe in numerology and she’d called me at 3:33. That was a sign to me. I had 24 hours to puppy-proof my place because she was delivering to me the next day.
Were you able to choose Napoleon or did you rely on fate for that, too?
She had videos of the last two remaining puppies from our previous litter. I had just done some research found out that black dogs are the last to be adopted because of this weird stigma about them. I felt sorry for Napoleon. He was so cute, and he was the size of the palm of the hand. I was like, let’s do it.
It’s pretty obvious, but tell us how you landed on the name, Napoleon.
I’m half-French and I’ve always wanted to give my dog a French name. I had a few in the works depending on the dog I got. I wanted to get a cream Dachshund named Baguette. Napoleon was the runt in the litter, but he has the biggest personality. He has this complex, just like Napoleon.
I love the passion that all the breed communities have. What do you love about Dachshunds?
I’m pretty new to the community, but I just think they’re so cute. They seem really affectionate and a bit sassy. They’re really loyal and fiercely protective. They’re just really good dogs.
I had this vision of myself four years ago. I wanted to be in this New York apartment with a little sausage dog, living my best life. Now, I’ve got my little sausage dog and everyone’s like, you did it!
Has Napoleon accompanied you to any photoshoots yet?
He’s come with me to a couple shoots in New York and Philly. We’ve gotten used to the travel bag. I would love to take him with me to work! I’d be saving money on daycare or having less stress about finding someone to look after him. It just depends on whether the client would allow me to bring the dog, such as whether the hotel is dog friendly. It makes me really anxious thinking he might not like flying because I didn’t like flying. I imagine a tiny dog might enjoy it,
I feel like my first flight with Napoleon is going to be hard because I don’t know what to expect. I hate when babies cry on planes, so what if my dog is just whining the whole time? I don’t want to be that person!
I feel you, but don’t worry about it. My dog whined on her first train ride on Amtrak when she had to stay in the bag. But after that, we’ve flown to Sweden and London and San Francisco from New York without a sound because she got used to her bag. It helps that Napoleon is such a small dog. Tell us about a day in the life with you and Napoleon.
We wake up earlier than I’m used to so that he can go outside. I have breakfast and because I’ve been working on a podcast, I’ve been doing a lot of research and self-doubting. We go for a walk at lunchtime, and then maybe we both take a nap or I read a book. My life used to be so chaotic and now I’m really happy with this very simple life where I can be attentive to my dog and just chill.
Is Napoleon a good co-worker?
He’s either napping or he’s got his little pocket puzzles. Sometimes, I’ll find him under the couch with his little puzzle. He’s very self-sufficient, which I was worried about because we’re spending so much time together. I was worried he’d be attached to me. He’s happy to sleep in the corner, though he still needs to see me, which I guess is a problem for the future. I was more worried that he would literally need to be in my lap all the time.
Sounds like he’s confident, which means you’re doing a great job raising him! What do you feed him?
I feel like this stereotypical Williamsburg dog mom that wants the best for her dog. I feed him Stella & Chewy’s Freeze-Dried Wild Weenies for training. But in terms of meal time, I’ve been really conscious about shifting my consumption over to Black-owned brands, especially as Black person myself. I found this amazing Black-owned pet food brand called PetPlate. I want to feed my dog what I would feed myself, and while I haven’t tried the dog food, my ex-partner has, and he said it’s not bad.
What would Napoleon be like if he were a person?
He would be an old man. He makes these random noises—he’s very vocal—and he’ll wake up and re-adjust his sleeping position all the time while making these noises. He’s a grump, always muttering under his breath.
What’s he like with other dogs?
I’m so petrified that I haven’t socialized him enough, but I want to be respectful that we are in a pandemic and we don’t do things the same way we used to. He’s a bit shy, and I don’t know if that’s because I didn’t socialize him early enough or he’s just scared. He’s so tiny that anything is big and scary for him. I take him to doggie daycare twice a week so that he can be properly socialized there. I’m just doing the best I can.
Especially with Instagram and TikTok, I never feel like I’m doing enough for my dog. There is no manual on how to be a good dog mom.
Yeah, for example, the concept of housebreaking for me as an Australian is so foreign because most houses in Australia have backyards. So, you take the dog out in the backyard and in the summer, you leave the door open because it’s so hot. You don’t have to create cues. People tell me it’s not a big deal if he pees in the house because he’s so small, but I don’t want him to go in the house. I want him to know that home is not where you pee. And then you go on Instagram and TikTok and you see dogs ringing doorbells to be let outside…
There is so much pressure to be perfect dog parents these days. Have you hired a trainer?
I did. She was very expensive and she disappeared—she’s extremely hard to get in contact with, and for the price tag, I could have just gone onto YouTube. There are a lot of people I follow on Instagram who sent their dogs off for two weeks and they come back trained, and I wonder, should I just do that? But then I’m missing out on the connection with my dog. I just want my dog to be perfect, and I know that’s not possible, but there’s so much information just sitting on YouTube.
I adopted my dog when she was six months old, and six months after that, she was completely housebroken. You’re doing great! You just need to make time to practice every day, which is unfortunately more than what some people are willing to do.
That’s the benefit of having a schedule like mine. We’ll go for a walk and we’ll do some training to make sure he’s listening to me and not just distracted by the cars; it’s really noisy in New York City! It’s a game of patience. I’m not the most patient person and I like things done immediately, It’s been a real test for myself. It’s hard work, especially if you’re doing it alone. There is a lot of information about getting a puppy, but you don’t know how hard it is until you experience it yourself.
I’m starting to see the rewards of training him. All of that stress and sleepless nights and barking and crate training and stuff, it’s worth it. Just persist, persist, persist.
It’s so exciting to see how Napoleon grows with you. How have you grown with him?
When he first came home, I got really emotional because I realized he was the start of my family. I eventually want kids of my own and potentially another dog. He’s going to see my kids. I’ve learned patience and my lifestyle has changed—also because of the pandemic. Napoleon is my first priority, and when things like work come up, I think about him. It’s helped me create better and healthier boundaries for myself and my self-care because I have someone else to worry about.
It’s also a great excuse to say no, sorry, I can’t. I want to be a better person for Napoleon! I don’t want to be hungover on Saturday morning because I want to get up and take him for a walk without resenting him for waking me up. I’m now saving for a house and I want a backyard for him. He’s helped me mature into an actual adult.
Tell us about his grooming routine.
He gets his nails clipped at daycare. I’m just too afraid to do it myself. Because he’s a long-haired Dachshund, we generally have a bath once a week. I started him pretty young with the bath, just so that he gets used to it. My other dog hated water, so I’ve been doing positive reinforcement with Napoleon—treats in the bath. We use Wild One Conditioning Shampoo because we love natural products. He doesn’t like hairdryers, so we just drip-dry. I love seeing him do zoomies, shaking everywhere and rubbing his wet body on everything.
During the week in-between, we use Wild One Grooming Wipes. They’re biodegradable. I’ll wash his little claws and around his eyes. I’m trying to teach him to wear booties outside, but he hates them. We use Musher’s Secret Paw Protection Natural Dog Wax, which is a paw balm.
Obviously, you work in fashion and have great taste. You’ve been able to work with amazing clothes in your career! What is Napoleon’s wardrobe like?
I told myself that I wasn’t going to be that person that buys clothes for their dog—and I’ve become the person that buys clothes for their dog. Everyone has an opinion on what I do with my dog. During the winter, a lot of people were concerned that he was cold, so I bought him some jumpers and a winter coat, a big puffy thing that covers his legs. He refuses to walk when it’s wearing that. So, I’ve made the executive decision that he doesn’t have to wear it when he goes outside. He’s obsessed with running around in the snow. We won’t go out for longer than half an hour when it’s cold. We’re also getting into bandanas at the moment.
Where are you buying his clothes?
We like The Foggy Dog because they’re classy but still fun!
What about his harness?
He has a Voyager harness. I did a Google search of the best harnesses for Dachshunds because obviously he has a different type of body, and he doesn’t like having a lead attached to his collar. Imagine being yanked by your neck! I wondered whether to get a front harness or back harness, and I noticed he works better with the back harness.
What does he like to wear?
I’m very eccentric when it comes to my own fashion. I would love to match outfits with Napoleon more often! He has this Christian Cowan X Maxbone Jumper that matches my cute cloud sweater. At first, he didn’t like it. It’s expensive, so I wanted him to live it. Everyone told me that dogs don’t like clothing at first. You have to condition them to like clothes. Lots of treat were involved! Now, he likes running around in it! He’s very happy.
He’s ready to model with you!
Yeah, we’d love that! I work a lot with Anthropologie and they often have dog models. I just need to get a bit better about training with him. It’d be cool to get some work for him!
Photography by Tayler Smith