Unpacking the burgeoning community, its power dynamic and the safe space it offers its pups and handlers
For Scruff, seeing other men dressed in dog suits meant something “immediately clicked”. “I knew that would be my perfect lifestyle,” he explains. Puppy play is a lively community, with a tight-knit institution and groups dotted across the country. One of its de facto figureheads, Spot, made his television debut on This Morning this week, and the Channel 4 documentary Secret Life of the Human Pups aired last night, broadcasting the relatively low-lying community to the masses, paws up.
Dr Jamie Lawson is the sexologist behind Puppy Play Project, a study delving into those leading their lives with a canine fantasy. “It's a particular type of role play, where one or more people become dogs for a period of time, and interact with a handler or trainer, who takes on the role of the dog owner. Becoming a pup – or puppy – generally involves moving around on all fours and making dog rather than human noises.
“There is a lot of kit associated with pup play: puppy hoods – masks – or full costumes; chest or body harnesses; collars and leads; tails and mitts, but people vary in precisely how they go about becoming a dog,” he says.
The documentary estimates that around 10,000 people in the UK alone engage in pup play on some level. The Mr Puppy contest is growing bigger every year, with events held across Europe. The UK’s current titleholder is Zentai Spot – you may have noticed him curled up beside Holly and Philip on ITV the other day – who came second runner up in the European heats in Antwerp this year. Qualities it judges on are very simple: “Do you have the best wag, the most tuneful howl, or any other amazing puppy skills?” The contest’s webpage reads. It’s open to anyone: alpha dogs, beta puppies, people who love a good ear scratch.
Elements of pup play don’t just involved slipping on a dog suit and crawling on all floors though. Some participants act as handlers or trainers, illustrating the levels of authority and power within the culture. “The power dynamic is modelled on the relationship between a dog and a dog owner,” says Dr Lawson. “A dog may need to be trained, or punished, or reassured. A dog owner might feel affectionate, angry or disinterested in their pet. They might play fetch, they might learn new tricks together, they might just sit about and enjoy each other's company. The relationship and dynamic might change as a scene progresses because, after all, dogs have their own personalities.”
Scamp, a 32-year-old London pup, explains how he first encountered the scene: “I got into it through a master/sub relationship I had – I was basically his pet for a few years. After we split, I discovered pup play – as opposed to the ‘pet play’ relationship I was in before – it differs slightly. I have been around the scene since about 2005.”
“It’s not just about wearing a mask and a suit, it’s about the headspace too” – Scamp
Pup play is pretty nuanced, and its relationship with sex is complex. Scruff asserts that it’s more about the support that it offers him: “I enjoy the headspace, it allows me to be free and to get myself into a meditative state, which I can then integrate into my ‘Hooman’ life.”
Dr Lawson agrees that it’s not always about sexual gratification, rather, the relationships they build and their own personal development. “We have heard from some pups for whom the scene is about sex in some way, but others describe close, intimate encounters. Entering what pups refer to as ‘pupspace’ (a particular mindset where a pup becomes more dog than human) seems to be a relaxing, reassuring and fun moment for many pups.
“We've had some pups describe some pretty intense, sexual scenes to us, but others who describe simply becoming a dog and curling up on the sofa with their master while he or she watches telly. There's a lot going on in pup play. It does, of course, depend on what you mean by ‘sex’.”
Despite this, the animalistic undertones, latex and leather suits, and the anonymity provided by large masks do mean we automatically cast our mind to the underworld of fetish. “We’ve already established that sex isn't a defining feature of pup play, so it may not be reasonable to attach the ‘fetish’ handle to it in all situations,” observes Dr Lawson.
“That said, it's certainly true that people who engage in one form of BDSM sex tend to have experiences of other forms, so I would expect that, pups and handlers who do receive sexual gratification from pup scenes probably have experience of other forms of power play. We don’t know for sure.”
From Scamp’s experience, he acknowledges the more platonic side to role play, but prefers pup play rooted in the kinky world. “I see it based in a kink, BDSM, dominant, sub world. I highly enjoy both sides of it. The sexual side of it for me loses a little of the pup persona and draws back to my submissive side . But I don't think that is the same for every pup.
“My pup outfits contain rubber and leather which I love. And when with a handler or master I massively enjoy the "training" submissive side of it. I think the biggest misconception is that it's a purely sexual activity. And that it's dirty and seedy. It’s many things for many pups. It's as dirty and seedy as you want it to be…*wag wag wags*”
Lawson also points out that despite the gay male pup scene rearing its head, pup play isn’t restricted to one gender or sexual orientation.
Although Scamp describes it as “a little bitchy sometimes”, he champions it as a safe space for love and friendship. “It can occur anywhere, it's not just about wearing a mask and a suit, it's about the headspace too. There are many different events that you can attend and each one is great for meeting new friends.” Scruff echos this sentiment: “There is a lot of care involved and quite a few feelings. I met a previous partner through puppy play and I have a very wide social network now because of pet play.”
Dr Lawson explains its relatively simple attraction, the same thing that attracts people to any form of recreation: “It's fun, it brings them pleasure. As to where that pleasure comes from; to some extent that's what we want to find out (in the Pup Play Project). It seems likely that, as with many forms of kink, it's the power dynamic that attracts people. The relationship between pup and handler is fluid and flexible, just as it is between dogs and owners. A pup can be naughty or well behaved, a handler can be gentle or harsh; and this can change as a scene progresses.
“People who engage in pup play are as likely to talk about the experiences as being warm and comforting as they are to refer to it as being hot and heavy.”
These pups essentially just want people to understand their lifestyle for what it is: harmless, fun and friendly. “I want people to understand that we are nothing but a loving community of people who happen to share an interest,” Scamp observes. “Yes, it may seem extroverted, but it's never done any harm to anyone, in fact, it has bought people together and made us stronger.”