My Date With Toast, the Absurdly Popular Dog Queen of Instagram

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Toast the dog has hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram. Daniel Ballesteros

I'm sitting in a Manhattan conference room with three Instagram-famous dogs perched on three separate office chairs.

Muppet, Underpants and Toast. They're siblings—sort of. All combined, they have 12 legs, two social media-savvy parents, 431,000 Instagram followers, dozens of famous friends and one book deal. But I'm only really here to meet one dog: Toast.

It's a Friday in late May, and the pooch's "mom," Katie Sturino, is telling me about Toast's celebrity admirers. "Reese Witherspoon follows her," Sturino says, adopting the same tone a mother might use to boast about her daughter's report card. "Drew Barrymore follows her. That girl from Pretty Little Liars follows her. She has a lot of random celebrity followers, which is really cool."

But for thousands of pet-inclined internet users, Toast is the celebrity. "Probably like three or four times a day, people stop and take pictures," says Sturino, a gregarious dog lover with a passion for her animals and the attention they receive. "We were at an adoption event last week for Dylan's Candy Bar and this woman came from Sweden and was like, 'I was so excited! I thought I wouldn't meet you.' She came, she took all these pictures." All for a dog whose primary skills appear to be "sleeping" and "owning a tongue."

A 10-year-old ruby Cavalier with marble-round eyes and an unreasonably long tongue that flops out one side of her mouth, Toast was rescued from a puppy mill half a decade ago by Sturino and her husband Josh Ostrovsky (better known as the Instagram comedian "Fat Jew"). It's a rags-to-riches story: "The first day we got her…she had all dead teeth, crazy hair." Then Sturino, a PR professional with a deep interest in fashion—she runs a plus-sized fashion blog called The 12ish Style—began dressing the dog up in fancy outfits and taking photos. Now Toast commands a following of 355,000 on Instagram and is repped by DBA (Digital Brand Architects), an agency that specializes in internet celebrities. "Toast is their only dog client," Sturino says. "They were like, 'This is a joke.' I said, 'It's not a joke.'"

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Toast, a dog with more than 350,000 Instagram followers, is the star of a new book titled "ToastHampton." Daniel Ballesteros/Harper Design

It's definitely not. All around you, pooping on your sidewalk and nibbling at your garbage, are internet-famous dogs—four-legged animals with more successful brands and more lucrative marketing deals than you'll ever know. Some hounds, like Manny the Frenchie (@manny_the_frenchie), have upward of a million Instagram followers. These dogs are moneymakers: A single sponsored Instagram post might earn an owner several thousand dollars. (Toast has worked with brands like Febreze and Swiffer, though Sturino's favorite was a campaign with Karen Walker, who hired the dog to model a line of sunglasses in 2015.) Recently, a Harvard Law graduate named Loni Edwards launched The Dog Agency, a talent management firm intended for these big-deal canines.

The obsession spills over into real-life gatherings. Sturino has had meet-ups with a dozen or so pooches, but status anxiety can get in the way. "I think there's like a hierarchy on Instagram," she says. "Maybe if you're too famous, you're not going to meet up because you're weary of people using you for your followers." In January I met some of the internet's most elite dogs while attending Toast's swanky wedding, where Sturino says she dressed the dog up in $175,000 worth of diamonds and raised money for a national mill dog rescue.

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Toast's first book features photos of the dog posing in the Hamptons. DANIEL BALLESTEROS/HARPER DESIGN

This time, there is a different occasion: The release of Toast's first book.

ToastHampton: How to Summer in Style (Harper Design, 2016) consists of 120 sleek pages of photographs showing Toast posing against tony Hamptons backdrops. In some images, the dog wears sunglasses or sweaters; in others, she appears au naturel, with her trademark lolling tongue. The photos—professionally shot and full of colorful ornaments—are similar to what you'll find scrolling through Toast's Instagram except bigger, fancier and, well, with a $16.99 price tag attached. Reading the book—or looking at the pictures, rather, since the text consists of one-line captions like: "As I always say: paws up kale salad!"—feels a bit like printing out a Twitter meme, putting it up on your fridge for a sense of permanence and then being confronted with the resounding meaninglessness of existence.

Anyway, yes, the famous dog has a book. "Toast is fancy," Sturino says by way of explanation, "and she is just telling the people about how to live like a luxurious, fancy dog." The dog mom always wanted to have a book, so she reached out to HarperCollins and scored a deal. The target audience? "Toast fans," she says, and "resort towns."

In our conference room, we are joined by three publicists assigned to work on the book. This is their office. "I'm gonna give you Toast's Snapchat," Sturino says to one of them, passing an iPhone down the table like it's a nuclear code. "Just don't take pictures of me." The publicists interject occasionally during the interview to share a favorite detail about Toast, or to keep the interview on-message, emphasizing the dog rescue angle. When I ask Sturino about the income generated from her dog's branding deals ("it's... not enough to live on"), a publicist tells me that a portion of the money goes to dog-related charities. "The book's still all about spreading the message." A few paragraphs about helping puppy mill dogs appear in the back of the book, just before the acknowledgments page.

Sturino's passion for dog and rescue mill advocacy is obvious. (She bristles at the mention of labradoodles, a breed commonly purchased in pet stores.) So is her passion for the vicarious celeb glow that comes with having an Insta-famous dog. Once, she was recognized by the owner of a different famous dog at the airport.

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"I get DMs, like, every day," Sturino says. "With people with four followers being like, 'Repost me!'" In these cases, she rarely responds. "If I went to your account and maybe you had 10,000 followers and I see that you have 200 posts and you're actually working at it and doing it, OK, let's talk about it," she says. "Maybe you have a message. But, like, I'm not going to take your pet store dog and just help you out because you want a famous dog."

At first, her family and friends were dismissive. "People were like, 'This is a weird obsession and you should watch out,'" she recalls. "Even the wedding! People were like, 'Uh, that's so weird.' But then [Toast] was in People magazine! Real Housewives filmed it. It was ridiculous! But these are the qualifiers that make people think you've done something right versus, You're a psycho."

Press attention is valuable for Toast? "Oh, media is everything," Sturino says. (She does have a background in PR.) "What else is there, really?"

* * *

Four days later, I attend Toast's book launch party.

It's at the Jonathan Adler store in SoHo. If you're wondering whether a cramped, luxury home decor shop in Manhattan is a good place to host a party full of dogs, here you go: No. It is not a good place to host a party full of dogs. But these are dogs of status and fame, so the high-class venue feels right.

Pooches climb on a Topanga sofa with a $3,995 price tag. Playful yelps and growls occasionally ring out over the celebratory din. There's a photographer walking around with a mock Instagram frame. A server carries around samples of White Girl Rosé, the wine brand from Fat Jew. (Mr. Ostrovsky himself is nowhere to be found, and when I ask Sturino whether her husband's joke-theft controversy has affected Toast's fame, the typically garrulous dog activist grows quiet: "I don't have any comment on that.")

There are a dozen or so famous dogs to meet. Samson the Dood, a big fluffy Goldendoodle with 114,000 Instagram followers, excitedly sniffs my leg before getting into a tussle with a smaller dog. There's Chloe Kardoggian, a mostly toothless chihuahua whose owner tells me she was on the Today show that morning, as though this is an entirely normal thing to say about your dog. "We're friends with Toast," the owner tells me. "They swim in the same social media circles." I'm charmed by Baby Dog, a mini-goldendoodle with a relatively modest following (17,000). When you have a famous dog, "it sometimes takes a little longer to go for a walk," Tripp Swanhaus, Baby's owner, tells me. "It makes people happy to see dogs. If they know the dog from Instagram, it's like they won a little prize if they see it in real life."

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Toast doesn't play ping pong well. Daniel Ballesteros

Then there are the dogs of the hour: Toast, Muppet and Underpants, seated on display on a little glass-enclosed cushion in the back. They seem calm, accustomed to feverish attention. My editor, who's along for the ride, snaps a photo of me posing in front of the doggy huddle. The shot looks weirdly maternal, as though the dogs are suckling up to me for a feeding, which I guess is accurate, since Instagram-famous dogs feed on media attention.

Then my editor tweets a picture of the dogs and it gets one quick reply, a starstruck "Are you at a Toasthampton party?" from a Glamour editor.

We are, but not for much longer. It's hot and cramped, so we bid farewell to Sampson the Dood and exit. Out on Greene Street a middle-aged woman is walking a white fluffy dog in the general direction of the store. I can't stop myself. "Are you going to the famous dog book party?" I demand to know. No, she says, confused. "I didn't know there was one."

On this dog's face, I almost sense a glimmer of rejection.

* * *

Back in that conference room, Sturino pulls out her phone to show me a video of Toast "#swalking," a swimming motion that she makes in the air when carried. Other dogs have also started #swalking, she says, but Toast did it first and does it best.

"By the way, this whole thing is Best in Show," she declares after I mention Christopher Guest's 2000 mockumentary masterpiece. "Don't think I'm not in on this joke."

Joke? What joke? In on it—how?

"I understand it's ridiculous," Sturino says. "I understand it's funny that my dog wrote a book. And, like, my dog is being picked up in a car service to go to Good Morning America."

"Katie is fully laughing with you!" one of the publicists in the room helpfully adds.

But I'm not laughing. Neither is Toast. She is sleeping, sprawled across the conference table like a frat boy recovering from a dozen Natty Lights. Occasionally, her long and winding tongue emerges from its cocoon. It's all very on brand.

My Date With Toast, the Absurdly Popular Dog Queen of Instagram