Just after 5 p.m. in Austin, Texas, Tuna threatens to do what dogs do when they’re leashed up and led out the door. He sniffs a meandering path across the velvety carpet of the Sheraton’s hallway, scrunches up his tubular torso like an accordion—and squats. His owner, Courtney Dasher, she of the fairy-tale golden locks, floppy black fedora, and freshly glued fake lashes, moves in to scoop the pile with her bare hands. “I don’t know what to do!” she shrieks.
And how could she? There’s no guidebook for this, no how-to manual for navigating life with a celebrity pet. It’s early March, day four of their national book tour—the second time in 12 months they’ve gone on tour to connect with Tuna’s adoring fans. They’ve scheduled seven stops in as many days, from the Strand Book Store in New York City all the way back home to sunny Santa Monica, California. Chaos is inevitable. Luckily, the hired help intervenes.
Tuna’s manager, Kara Dykert, pulls a piece of scrap paper from her purse and intercepts the excrement before Courtney can reach it. She drops it in the trash, and together the three of them stroll calmly toward the elevator with Tuna leading the way. Once downstairs, they climb into a black town car. The chauffeur rushes them to the offices of the Austin American-Statesman—a stopover on the way to the evening’s signing at BookPeople—for a taped interview. At least, Tuna has an interview. Courtney, well, she put her lashes on just in case.
As they’re escorted through the newsroom’s maze of cubicles to reach the studio, a throng gathers in their wake, editors and reporters cooing and snapping photos. One throws herself in Courtney’s path, halting the entire parade. “Excuse me, I just want to see the puppy,” she curtly explains. Courtney obliges.
Inside the studio, a producer tells Courtney, “We’re just going to have Tuna and our book critic, Joe Gross.”
“Oh, so I don’t have to be on?” Courtney clarifies. “Yes!” she says, pumping her fist.
She props Tuna on a stool next to Gross, whose former subjects include Keanu Reeves and Joss Whedon (of Avengers fame). “Life on the road can be difficult—do you get bored?” Gross deadpans to the dog. “You’re known for your teeth. I’m wondering if you’re thinking about endorsing a tooth-cleaning product?”
From behind the camera, Courtney flings peanut butter– and bacon-flavored treats across the room and sings promises of airplane rides and long walks and going bye-byes in the car. She drops to all fours, brandishing the tattered green body of Tuna’s toy monster, Colin, desperately coaxing him to respond to questions by way of flickering his ears, shifting his gaze, tilting his head. “Are you thinking about doing your own designing?” Gross continues. “It’s worked for Kanye.”
At that, Tuna leaps from the stool. Ten minutes in, and the interview’s a wrap. They’re out the door and down the hallway and waiting for the elevator, all the while discussing logistics for the evening. Tuna, disoriented by his hectic schedule, sniffs around and squats again. The producer urges Courtney and Kara not to worry. “We deal with a lot of breaking news around here,” she says.
Imagine this: You have a cute pet—a dog, cat, rabbit, even a hedgehog. “You should start an Instagram account for him,” your friends say. You’re bored one day, or procrastinating, and you do it. You put your pet on the Internet—because why not?
Strangers start following your pet and liking his photos. It’s a little weird but also amusing, so you go with it. You amass several thousand followers. Your pet officially has a bigger social-media presence than you do. Way bigger. Then someone posts a picture of your pet on the content aggregator site Reddit, and overnight he becomes a meme. The meme goes viral. You watch as the throng grows by the tens of thousands. National morning shows start calling.
Give or take a few variables, the stories of famous pets are surprisingly similar, serendipitous yet formulaic. In the spring of 2009, pictures of an impossibly fuzzy Pomeranian named Boo popped up on Facebook. His owner, known only by the pseudonym J.H. Lee, supposedly started the page as a joke after Boo suffered an unfortunate trip to the groomer. The pooch’s teddy-bear looks and snappy outfits quickly won over celebrities and thousands of devoted fans, who proclaimed him the cutest dog on the Internet. His first book, Boo: The Life of the World’s Cutest Dog, was released in 2011 and became an international best seller. Two more books plus a paper-doll set and a line of Gund stuffed animals followed. As of press time, he was approaching 17 million Facebook fans.
Born with a form of dwarfism that causes her undersized mouth to droop, the 3-year-old cat formerly known as Tardar Sauce can’t help but look perpetually displeased. In September 2012, the brother of Tardar’s owner posted a photo of the cat’s frowny mug on Reddit. Grumpy Cat, as she became known, went from house cat to household name in less than a year, securing a movie deal and gracing the front page of The Wall Street Journal. She has two books (one of them a New York Times best seller), a line of plush toys, an endorsement deal with Friskies, her own iced coffee (“Grumpuccino”), plus mugs and magnets and T-shirts bearing her signature scowl.
But when she’s not plopped on a literal pedestal at some meet and greet or tooling around in a blacked-out Escalade, Grumpy Cat is Tabatha Bundesen’s cat—and the sole reason why the 29-year-old single mother and former Red Lobster waitress may never work another day in her life.
Boo’s owner has never revealed her true identity (and seems to have no plans to), and Tabatha rarely appears in pictures with Grumpy Cat. Their veiled involvement is partly what’s fueling the celebrity pet trend. “As soon as there’s a human involved, the narrative changes completely,” says Scott Stulen, the man behind the hugely popular Internet Cat Video Festival, hosted by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. “Rather than someone merely projecting a personality onto an animal, the focus shifts to that person’s relationship to the cat [or dog].” That shift has the potential to invite negativity, which makes keeping it about the pets even more appealing to owners who didn’t seek fame in the first place. As a result, despite connecting with millions of fans daily, they’re simultaneously left in isolation to reconcile their unusual—and unprecedented—relationship with their pet.
The Austin book signing is scheduled to begin in 15 minutes, and Courtney is staring into her compact mirror, inspecting her faux lashes yet again. “I never used to care what I looked like when I did meet and greets, until people started posting photos of me,” she says. “No one’s supposed to know what I look like.”
The store’s events coordinator is a bit bewildered by the turnout. They set out 60 chairs. Hundreds showed up, some arriving more than an hour early. They’ve sold out of every copy of Tuna Melts My Heart: The Underdog with the Overbite, which isn’t totally unheard of—the same thing happened when David Sedaris, Hillary Clinton, and Stephen King came to town.
Now just two minutes to showtime, Courtney is debating: hat or no hat. Kara teases that she wears the felt fedora too often, that she’s been shot in it too much lately and needs a fresh look. But Courtney loves it. Even as a kid she always wore hats. She asks a nearby photographer to take a picture of her both ways and checks the results on his camera’s LCD screen. She goes with her gut. The hat stays.
Courtney has had to wrestle with her own intuition as a guiding force since Tuna skyrocketed to fame. When she and Kara hit the road for their first tour in April 2014, they planned to find a sponsor in each city and raise money for a local animal shelter, but Courtney was hyperconscious about aligning with the right brands. When the dog-product subscription service BarkBox, which has relationships with animal shelters and rescue organizations around the country, offered to cover the whole thing, they knew they’d found the right partner. Most recently, Burger King wanted to pay her several thousand dollars to dress Tuna in a chicken costume and post about the return of chicken fries. She declined. “We turn down probably 90 percent of what comes our way,” Kara says. “To Courtney, it doesn’t matter if somebody says, ‘I’ll pay you 20 grand to post this one time about this one brand.’ If she doesn’t agree with it, and if it’s not in alignment with Tuna, then she’s not going to do it.”
Considering the fleeting nature of fame, and especially of Internet fame, it’s an audacious stance. Still, she stands firm. “I know that my sole purpose in this is the audience,” Courtney says. She likes to say that her calling isn’t to change people’s lives, but rather to change their days.
With Tuna on her hip, she parts the royal-blue curtain that hangs from BookPeople’s back staircase, and scores of smartphones rise up from fans wrapped around the store. She quickly thanks everyone for coming and takes a seat at a long wooden table, Tuna next to her in his dog bed. Many come bearing gifts: flowers, toys, clothing, hats, and homemade dog desserts, as well as pictures and notes from their own pets. Among them are Amal Assaf and her boyfriend, Robert Ulman, who drove six hours from Altus, Oklahoma, to meet Tuna. Robert, who sports a scraggly, chest-length beard and ink-covered arms, has his own tattoo shop. Two weeks ago, on Valentine’s Day, the couple got matching Tuna tattoos. “They’re still healing up,” Robert says as he lifts his shirt to reveal a devilish, pitchfork-carrying Tuna with horns. (Amal’s is a blue-hued halo-wearing angel.) One glance at Tuna and Robert’s a puddle. Tuna stares him down and snarls.
“No sir! We do not treat our friends that way,” Courtney snaps. She distracts Tuna long enough for Robert and Amal to get a photo, peppering him with questions in her chipmunk voice: “Oh my goshhh, who are these buddies? Hey Toonie, do you maybe wanna think about these … cookiesinthebag? Do you wanna go ... outside?”
Sammi Haney, a curly-haired 4-year-old with bright pink glasses,
sits cross-legged in a rainbow-accented wheelchair with a sign attached: “STOP. Please, do not touch our baby. Our baby has ‘Brittle Bone Disease’ and ordinary touching could break a bone.” When it’s their turn, her mother, Priscilla, pushes her to the front of the line, and Sammi launches into a series of questions about Tuna’s bath time and naptime and his favorite toy, Colin.
Courtney stamps a “pawtograph” in Sammi’s book, and then Priscilla asks her to put one on April 28 in Sammi’s Tuna calendar. “That’s the date of her surgery,” Priscilla says. “This will be her fifth.” Sammi plans to bring both the calendar and the book with her that day to show off to every doctor and nurse within earshot. “She loves to tell everyone about Tuna and look at his pictures,” Priscilla says.
Kara plucks Tuna from his perch and holds him next to Sammi for a photo. As Priscilla starts to wheel her away, Courtney stops to ask for the date of the surgery one more time. She writes it on her palm in black Sharpie.
She looks up to smile at the next person in line, but tears well in her eyes. She wipes them away, apologizes, and tries to forge ahead, but her face crumples. “I need a break,” she tells Kara, holding her hand over her mouth. She stands up from the table, apologizes again, and with nowhere else to go ducks behind the curtain. Wrapped in the cotton fabric hung that day for Tuna’s arrival, she cries and cries, her sobs jerking the curtain up and down.
At 29, Courtney was struggling to make her way in Los Angeles when she visited a farmers’ market in December 2010 and returned home with a Chiweenie—a cross between a Chihuahua and a dachshund. The 4-month-old pup had been abandoned on the side of a San Diego highway, presumably because of his odd appearance: the pronounced overbite, recessed jawline, and pruney neck. Courtney planned to foster him, but after a week she was too smitten to give him up.
She had moved to L.A. in 2009 to chase her dream of becoming an interior designer. Two years later, in June 2011, she and a close friend launched C+R designs. At first there was enough work to pay the bills, but after 10 months their prospects dwindled, and Courtney was compelled to accept a nine-to-five with a textile company. She kept up her business part-time, and Tuna was her faithful sidekick, keeping her company as she toiled late at night.
Like most pet owners, she filled her phone with pictures of him. At the urging of friends she started an Instagram account for Tuna, despite having no social media presence herself. She called it @tunameltsmyheart.
With hundreds of photos stocked up, she posted one each day, usually a shot of Tuna on his back, his overbite and toothy grin on full display. Each caption, written from her own perspective, gave a simple, often humorous report on what Tuna was up to that day. The account spread through friends of friends (of friends), and within a year Tuna acquired nearly 8,500 followers, a figure that baffled Courtney.
When she wasn’t working, she was responding to comments from fans. In early December 2012, she got word that an anonymous photo of Tuna had been posted to Reddit, a site she had never heard of. Days later, she was on the phone with her dad while driving to meet friends. He was trying to convince her to make Tuna T-shirts, adamant that she capitalize on the dog’s popularity. Courtney felt differently: “My first reaction was ‘No way. Maybe if I have 10,000 followers.’”
She plugged in her dying phone when she got out of the car, and when she checked it 30 minutes later there was a text message from a friend: “Tuna’s famous 15k.” She dismissed it as a joke, but the next message was a screenshot of Tuna’s Instagram profile showing 15,000 followers. “By the time I pulled it up on my phone it was 16,000,” she says. “Every 10 minutes it would go up by a thousand, and when I woke up the next morning I had 32,000 followers. It was nuts. My following quadrupled within a 12-hour period.” (Later she learned that Instagram had posted about Tuna on its official account, which had roughly 12 million followers at the time.)
Anderson Cooper’s team called the following day and offered to put the two of them on the next plane to New York City. Courtney immediately declined. The holidays were hectic,and many of her coworkers were already out of the office. She wasn’t willing to risk her job for 15 minutes of fame, and secretly she worried someone might try to steal Tuna if he became too popular. When they called back and offered to do a satellite interview, she agreed—and unwittingly began the journey to Internet pet stardom. A month later, with Tuna’s followers exceeding 130,000, she flew to New York for the Today show.
“When our following started to grow I was getting inundated with comments and requests: I want a T-shirt, I want a mug, I want a calendar,” Courtney says. “I started to erase the comments because I didn’t want that.” Her threshold had once been 10,000, but even at 100,000-plus Courtney remained reluctant to merchandise Tuna’s image. “I was thinking about the possibility of T-shirts,” she says. “My friend told me, ‘If you don’t do it, somebody else will.’ She was trying to make a point: If anyone is going to be profiting off of your dog, it should be you. That’s when I thought, Well, maybe.”
In April 2013, she finally released a small batch of shirts, mugs, and iPhone cases. Fans posted hundreds of photos of their new gear. Even still, Courtney assumed they would soon lose interest and move on—and so could she. There was the matter of her full-time job after all, not to mention her dreams of interior design. Instead, Tuna’s following continued to grow, reaching 375,000 that June. She couldn’t keep up with the deluge of comments, emails, and appearance requests, plus the demands of a product line.
That summer, she met Kara Dykert through a mutual pal. Kara was running a dinner party company out of her loft, so her schedule was flexible. She offered to help Courtney keep up with emails and design a new shirt. Within a month she had signed a commission-based agreement to operate as Tuna’s manager. “From the beginning Courtney would tell me, ‘I don’t want to be a sellout. I don’t want to be a sellout,’” Kara says. “I think she had this idea that if she did business with Tuna it was going to make her seem money-hungry, or like she was just using her dog for monetary gain. I really encouraged her to reframe the way she thought about it.”
The first step to enlightenment? Tuna calendars. T-shirts and mugs were one thing, but for Courtney, a calendar felt gratuitous. Kara convinced her to produce a 2014 calendar in time for Christmas, but the night before they were scheduled to go on sale, Courtney tried to pull back. “We’re going to do these calendars,” Kara insisted, “and they’re going to be a success.”
The first 1,000 sold out in two weeks. They printed another 1,000 and sold out of those as well. The momentum was palpable. Buzzfeed named Tuna “the most inspiring dog on the Internet.” It was just under a year since he first went viral, and Courtney began to talk more seriously about leaving her job. In April 2014, she finally did it. Five months later, Reese Witherspoon mentioned Tuna on the popular Vogue.com video series 73 Questions, propelling Tuna past the 1 million mark.
What does it mean that the popularity of her pet dictates the course of Courtney’s life? Or that her dog’s renown trumps previously held ambitions and career dreams? For now, she’s “just riding the wave,” she says.
After the March book tour wrapped, Courtney and Tuna boarded a plane for London. It will be a short stay at first, but the plan is to make it permanent. A British publisher acquired the rights to the Tuna book and bumped up its release date by two months to meet demand all over Europe.
Courtney’s day-to-day has evolved since she was running a side business and holding down a day job. More than ever she has to devote herself to planning logistics for upcoming events, coordinating with sponsors, and responding to email. Regardless, she still sets aside at least an hour each day to pore over the thousands of comments on each of her posts, a practice she’s kept up from the beginning. Nowadays she can’t possibly read them all, but she keeps an eye out for messages like the one she received last fall, from a girl whose mother had been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. Tuna’s photos provided a source of momentary relief, the girl told her. Her mom laughs at his pictures and forgets the gravity of her condition. Courtney sent a special photo with a handwritten sign, which the girl printed off and hung on her mother’s dresser mirror.
On April 27, Courtney carved out time for an event she’d once scrawled on her palm in thick, black Sharpie. Four-year-old Sammi Haney would be going in for her fifth surgery the next day. The six-hour procedure would involve replacing both tibias in Sammi’s legs and the humerus of her right arm with specialized rods.
Courtney began sending special Tuna photos to Sammi in the days prior, and she would continue with get-well messages in the days afterward. But the evening before the surgery, they got the chance to video-chat—Courtney and Tuna in London and Sammi at the Rainbow House in Omaha, Nebraska, a short walk from the children’s hospital. Sammi, a relentlessly optimistic kid, was in good spirits. “Hi Tuna!” she exclaimed upon seeing him. She asked him about Colin and wondered aloud about his mommy and daddy.
The next day, Sammi took her special Tuna pillow into surgery with her. She told the nurses all about him as they prepped her for the procedure. She held the pillow as she drifted off, and when she woke up it was right beside her.
Originally published June 2015
Austin W.G. Morton is the associate editor of this magazine—until she succeeds in making her very own pound puppy, Toby, famous.
Photography by Peter Yang