What Is Puppy Play and Why Is It So Popular?

A couple of weeks ago, I was hanging out at the Cuff, the leather bar at 13th and Pine, when a man to my left pulled out a pink rubber ball. He held it up in the air, and around the patio, half a dozen guys suddenly dropped what they were doing and turned to stare. He swayed his arm a few times, the men in front of him following every move with their eyes—and then, with a quick flick, he tossed the ball into the middle of the crowd, provoking furious barks as they all clambered over each other, desperate to snatch the ball and return it to him, or maybe just retreat to a corner to blissfully chew on it.

This was the scene at the monthly mosh held by Seattle Pups and Handlers (SEA-PAH), our local puppy-play group. Surely you've heard of puppy play: It's surging in popularity among the gays, and, if history is any guide, will be surging among the straights in five years when we've moved on to something else.

Let's be clear about this. Puppy play means role-playing as a dog, down on all fours and barking, and yes, it's weird. Of course, it is. But I know you're not the sort of person who uses "weird" as a pejorative term because you're reading The Stranger. You weirdo.

If you're having trouble understanding the appeal of puppy play, just imagine how amazing it would be if there were a form of group relaxation where you could empty your mind of all your cares, forget all of your responsibilities, lower all of your defences, and bypass small talk forever. Now imagine that vigorous cuddling and praise are key components of this relaxation technique. And did I mention snacks? You get snacks. Awesome. Why aren't we pupping right now?

The rules are simple: There aren't any.

"The entry-level is so low and nonthreatening," SEA-PAH vice president pup Amp told me. All a puppy has to do, he explained, is relax and switch their brain from that of a logical calculator to a reactive animal. When he's in pup mode, he said, he has "no real inner monologue. Just me at my rawest form. Affectionate and loving and sharing myself."

One of Amp's first encounters with pups was on a camping trip with some friends, two of whom were a puppy and his daddy. "I'd never seen that relationship outside of a bar," he said. "They had a bond that you couldn't explain. They could be themselves 100% of the time. A lot of people, when they go into a relationship, they tend to hide off parts of themselves that they're embarrassed about. But puppies are out there, they're always themselves, their personalities and their emotions are on their sleeves."

Pups can't maintain much guile, and that honesty is a big draw for pups like Fosse and Chance, two friends I met at the mosh. Fosse identifies as a "therapy pup," going down on all fours to cuddle and nurture and comfort. (Prior to this, he studied to become a pastor.)

Chance's sir brought him to his first puppy mosh last Valentine's Day. He initially had reservations. "What if the other pups don't want to play with me because I'm trans?" he worried. But he was welcomed into the group, and now he sets aside every Tuesday for hormone shots followed by pupping and cuddling and watching Battlestar Galactica.

"I was looking for something that would be fun and playful and a release," pup Tugger said. He was a crowd favourite this year at International Mr Leather, where he exploded assumptions about leathermen by strutting onto the stage in high femme stiletto heels, a corset, and a fur wrap. It was a stunning show of bravado, but just a few years ago, he struggled with debilitating anxiety. Then he met a dom who flew him out to Oklahoma for a pup vacation, and Tugger discovered that his unease melted away when he was a poodle.

It took practice. His first time, "I put on a hood and I was trying a little too hard. And finally, the dom looked at me and said, 'You're still thinking. You're thinking about how to do this and worried about looking dumb. Let go. Just react. Just play.'"

Learning to let go, reacting to the world instead of staying in his head, and just playing helped change Tugger from a nervous shy-guy to the proud leather-poodle who turned every head at this year's IML. These days, Tugger serves as Mr Phoenix Leather and is a voice for puppies of all stripes, including cuddly nuzzle pups, watchdogs who guard the group against the sidelines, playful pups who like to pounce, and wrestlers who push each other over to establish dominance.

As for himself, he said, "I'm very proud of the fact that I'm a standard poodle." In other words, he presents as fluffy and effeminate, but he's also loyal and oriented toward stereotypically masculine endeavours like hunting (though not necessarily for animals).

Making friends, calming nerves, overcoming fears, understanding yourself—puppy play seems to serve a psychological function that other kinks don't always reach. (You'll note that we haven't even talked about sex.) But why pretend to be a dog? Why not just listen to Enya and squeeze a stress ball? That's harder to answer, but I suspect that some pups just need a more forceful way to relax, or maybe the structure of puppy play, loose though it may be, provides permission to unwind.

Whatever the case, puppy play has exploded in popularity over the last few years.

"We tend to have waves," said Daddy Jeff, owner of Doghouse Leathers on Pike Street. "A dozen years ago, it was all about boy empowerment." Whatever the current trend, it's just one more way for people to get along. "It's become a community," he said. "You get newbies or people around to lend a helping paw or people who look out for wolves. It's taking care of each other."

Doghouse just opened a new expansion, featuring more electro gear, superhero singlets, a permanent bootblack stand—and, of course, more pup gear, from hoods to tails to mitts. These accessories play a crucial role in getting into the pup headspace, serving as positive meditation triggers in the same way that other people might use a ringing gong or cucumber mask.

"I have a few friends that get home from work, and their life is a puppy," said SEA-PAH president Nightcat. "They take an hour when they get through the door, and they progress down into puppy mode. A lot of these people work in jobs where they run things," he added. "It's not having to think about work, e-mail, calendars. That's all left at the door."

Other pups take a more integrated approach. "I use my pup parts in everyday life," said Fosse, the former theology student who now identifies as a sheepdog. (Calling himself a shepherd, he said, felt a little too presumptuous after all that religious instruction.) These days, Fosse runs training programs at a corporate day job; by night, he's often rounding up his fellow burlesque performers to put on a show.

"There are always sheep that need their heels nipped at," he said, looking down as Chance nuzzled his shoulder. Chance's eyes were closed and he was gently yipping.

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