He always eats out of a dog bowl at home

The Guardian, on…um…

It’s easy to laugh at a grown man in a rubber dog suit chewing on a squeaky toy. Maybe too easy, in fact, because to laugh is to dismiss it, denigrate it – ignore the fact that many of us have found comfort and joy in pretending to be animals at some point in our lives.

Secret Life of the Human Pups is a sympathetic look at the world of pup play, a movement that grew out of the BDSM community and has exploded in the last 15 years as the internet made it easier to reach out to likeminded people. While the pup community is a broad church, human pups tend to be male, gay, have an interest in dressing in leather, wear dog-like hoods, enjoy tactile interactions like stomach rubbing or ear tickling, play with toys, eat out of bowls and are often in a relationship with their human “handlers”.

Ok, so my first question is, how do they make a living with that? Do they wear the rubber dog suit to work?

In the documentary, we see Tom, AKA Spot, take part in the Mr Puppy Europe competition in Antwerp, a mix of beauty pageant, talent show and Crufts; David, AKA Bootbrush, talk to camera in a leather dog mask; two pups walk through London pretending to wee on lampposts to raise awareness of their identity; and lots of men jumping up for “treats”, barking and wagging their mechanical tails.

It’s sweet that they’re walking around (quadripedally? don ‘t tell me they cheat and walk upright – that would be horribly dishonest – but walking quadripedally for an extended time is very uncomfortable for humans – our arms are too short, our pelvises are not tilted that way, our wrists are too weak, our backs are arched the wrong way – I could go on) – it’s sweet that they’re walking around pretending to piss on lampposts to raise awareness of their identity. I guess. Depending on what comes next. If we’re soon hearing from pups on Twitter raging at us about our species privilege and our radical feminist pup exclusion, it might not be so sweet after all.

When I speak to Tom, he is keen to point out that puppy play is about more than just outfits and surface-level power games: it’s about being given licence to behave in a way that feels natural, even primal. “You’re not worrying about money, or food, or work,” says Tom, who works as an engineer in a theatre.

Oh. That seems to imply that Tom doesn’t wear the rubber dog suit to work (or pee on  his boss’s leg or eat out of a bowl on the floor of the break room). So they’re not full time pups, it’s just something they put on and take off.

For now.

Tom learned about puppy play gradually – then he went all in, and the result was “a breakup with his former fiancee Rachel” (meaning, I think, that she left him) and having a new “relationship” with his new “handler,” Colin.

“I wouldn’t say it was the catalyst, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Tom. “Then I had this moment of panic because a puppy without a collar is a stray; they don’t have anyone to look after them. I started chatting to Colin online and he offered to look after me. It’s a sad thing to say, but there’s not love from the heart in me for Colin – but what I have got is someone who is there for me and I’m happy with that.”

That’s not sad so much as tragic. It’s horrifying. He’s so into pretending he’s a dog that he decides he has to have a “handler” even though he (clearly) doesn’t much like him? A grown man?

The psychiatrist Carl Jung argued that our conscious minds contain intuitive, emotional, sensation and thinking archetypes. Are the sort of men drawn to puppy play simply exploring their intuitive self? “Absolutely,” says David. “Puppy play is exactly that – play. There is an immense amount of pleasure from gambolling around in a club playing with squeaky toys because you’re making people laugh, you’re being a cute little puppy.”

Guys, you’re doing it wrong. I hate to tell you. It’s true that dogs can provide a lot of fun and play, but that’s if the dogs are dogs and the humans are humans. Cooper gets huge joy out of chasing his squeaky snake toy and bringing it back to me to throw again, and I get fun out of giving him the fun and watching him be absurd – and I’m goofy with him and talk in silly voices and the whole nine yards, but I’m still not down on the floor racing him for the squeaky snake toy. Also I get bored after a few minutes and go do other things. We’re all different, and life’s a pageant, and all that, but…you’re doing it wrong.

Kaz, another pup, argues that for some, being a puppy isn’t just a fun mask to try on – it’s how they identify; it’s who they are. “Even when I worked in PC World I would sometimes walk up to people and nip at their shirt,” he says, laughing. “I got in trouble once; someone walked into the PC repair centre and I had part of their dad’s computer in my mouth. But the other staff knew I was like that to everyone. They didn’t find it weird.” For Kaz, pup play can be summed up in the phrase: “Be dog”. He will socialise as a pack, enjoy physical closeness with other pups and always eats out of a dog bowl at home. “It’s just nice, it makes me feel comfortable,” he explains, before adding “But I always eat with a knife and fork and at a table. Otherwise it’s time-consuming and you can’t watch TV.”

But what about how he identifies then? He said it’s who he is. If it’s who he is, how can he eat with a knife and fork and at a table? Why does he want to watch TV?

Then, of course, there is the sex. Puppy play is often part of a larger sexual practice that crosses over with leather folk, furries and BDSM. But, as Kaz is keen to point out, not always. “People automatically jump to the conclusion that this is gear we wear to have sex. I used to get asked awful questions like, if I liked having sex with dogs. But it’s certainly not that, and it’s not always sexual. Members of my pack, we spend a lot of time together at home just being dogs. There’s nine of us and my partner is our handler. A big part of it is a feeling of family and belonging; we’re there to look after each other.”


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