Picture this: You’re out at your favorite queer bar. It’s Friday night; the music is bumping, and your friend drags you outside for a cigarette break. Chatting on the patio, you see a cute puppy and their handler. Locking eyes, the pup perks up and starts wagging their tail.
The only thing is, this isn’t a domesticated pet—it’s a person, clad in finger-restricting mitts and a leather hood with ears.
Pup play is a growing kink stemming from power dynamics explored in BDSM. Pups shed their human persona and attachments to instead embrace the simple pleasure principles dogs enjoy on a day-to-day basis. Pup play can involve sex, but it is not inherently sexual, and is embraced as a form of expression and community building.
As Denver continues to grow into its own LGBTQ hub, it opens the door for subcultures like pup play to thrive. OUT FRONT sat down with four, queer, local pups to discuss what pup play is really all about, and why it’s something to be celebrated and embraced.
An initial question someone might pose about pup play is a simple one with many answers: Why?
A crucial element of pup play is the pup headspace. Have you ever looked at your pet with feelings of jealousy, their body splayed across the ground without care, as you leave the house for a busy work shift? That is the base concept behind pup headspace, escaping from the burdens of being human in today’s world.
“I think that being in a different headspace really helps people disassociate from their issues,” Pup Pistol said. “It’s really easy to just say, ‘Good dog, good dog,’ all the time; it’s really affectionate. Whereas, in human form, you’re just kind of unsure if somebody likes you or not, or if you’re doing a good job. It kind of brings it to a more simple place.”
The way people interact with pups is also different. Just like the hypothetical Friday night at the bar patio, approaching a puppy can be easier than approaching a human stranger. A quick belly rub or affirmation is a warm interaction from a person who may not even notice the same pup in the same bar sporting their everyday garb.
However, releasing your human mindset in favor of simple, primal pleasure principles isn’t easy and takes time.
“For me, headspace was super difficult,” Pup Rascal said. “I didn’t actually get into headspace until I got my first hood. It’s definitely a sense of armor, and it’s pretty cool because I can walk into any bar in Denver, and half the people aren’t going to know who I am, despite, you know, I may frequent that bar. For some people, it’s really easy to get into headspace, but I tend to be very grounded, so trying to let go of everything that’s going on around me is definitely a big deal.”
Pup Arrow added, ”I still don’t get into the headspace when we go out to bars. The only time I get into headspace is actually when it’s sexual. That’s the only way I can get into headspace is when I’m being, like, a submissive dog.”
By no means is it required, but the pups agreed gear is helpful to attain the pup headspace. The inability to move your fingers in mitts, or talk in a muzzle, helps many pups set aside their human obligations. As more leather and kink retailers appeal to the pup market, pup play is also becoming more accessible to curious newcomers.
“You have kitten play, and pony play, and all these different types of pet play, but pup play is definitely the most visible,” Pup Hades said. “It’s sometimes the most accessible, when we see how easy it is for people to get gear and to meet other puppies through events.”
Pup play can be a little less daunting than some other master/slave dynamics, with the community leaning more toward the playful side of BDSM.
“I think it’s a lot more light-hearted,” Pistol said. “Pup play just seems more accessible mentally for people to get into, rather than, like, hardcore submitting to somebody, you know?”
Generally, in pup play, there is the handler (the person taking on the role of the human counterpart) and the pup. Pups in a pack can be alphas, betas, omegas, and more. That being said, the pups emphasized the openness with the different roles and the lack of set rules. That lack of rigid boundaries allows pups to explore their identities, not feeling tied down to one role within the community.
“I wouldn’t even call it a hierarchy,” Hades said. He entered the pup community more of a sub, but learning more about being an alpha within the pack, he started to explore that mentality and a dom approach. Hades said he wouldn’t have been able to explore those happy in-betweens if it weren’t for pup play.
“Each puppy’s headspace is completely different than another’s, and that’s the beauty of it, too,” Rascal said. “While you have the community at large, you also have these smaller groups who definitely come together and take care of each other and really foster headspace, the mentality of consent, exploration, body positivity, defying gender boundaries. They create a sense of belonging, and it doesn’t matter where you come from.”
Pup play is whatever a person makes of it, and while it can be inherently sexual or not, loose or very rigid; it is an alternate form of expression and community. The headspace may push human burdens to the back burner, but pup play actually allows people to embrace more genuine interactions among one another.
“It felt like, between the handlers and pups, everybody’s there for each other’s wellbeing,” Pistol said. “Just like if you were at a dog park—you’re petting all the dogs and giving them treats—it’s kind of the same situation; it gives you a way to meet people and have something in common. The pup energy is just awesome.”
Queer spaces are becoming more welcoming to the pup community, with local spots like Charlie’s and Trade holding pup-centric events. Online communities were crucial in elevating pup play to where it is now over the past several decades and continue to unite pups in Denver and beyond.
“In Denver, and many areas, there are pup, or pet, and handlers groups that run local events, socials, moshes, where people can go to these spaces and interact, and there’s a lot of online, social, chat groups, in which puppies can meet and engage with each other,” Hades said. “There is a big sense of community, whether that’s online or through local groups.”
Pup play can shed certain boundaries, leading to a deeper understanding of a person’s identity and the potential for their expression. Exploring their identities in pup headspace allowed these pups to branch out in ways they otherwise wouldn’t as their everyday, human selves.
“If I was going to a bar, I wouldn’t really show skin or anything. I was too body-ashamed,” Arrow said. “If I have my hood on, then I’m OK to just go in a jock.”
The core concepts of self expression and exploration are often misunderstood by people outside of the community. Pup play falls under the kink umbrella, and as a relatively new form of expression in the mainstream, it’s still met with its share of judgment.
“The thing with people and humanity in general is that we fear what we don’t understand, and it’s easier to choose fear as opposed to understanding because that would mean stepping outside of your comfort zone,” Rascal said.
Over time, as a pup, Rascal opened up to his coworkers and friends, and while they had to work to understand it, they came to accept it once they learned more about what it really entails. Telling his father about being a pup was not quite met with the same response.
“It was definitely an interesting conversation. He didn’t take very kindly to it at first, and he still doesn’t feel very great about it. He feels like I’m being oversexualized, that I’m being dominated by someone day-in and day-out, and I’m like, ‘No, that’s not what this is.’ This is just a form of self-expression, like somebody doing drag, or somebody who wears a fursuit, or even somebody who’s going to Comic Con dressing up as their favorite comic character.”
Arrow started out doing cosplay and said it was the roleplay mentality that introduced him to pup play. As he explored pup play and saw society’s lack of understanding, he said that the most backlash he noticed is within the pup community itself.
“Overall I’m told there’s no rules, but then there’s people who are like, ‘You can’t do that. That goes against this,’” Arrow said. “It’s not everyone. It’s very specific, certain scenarios of people who have this idea of how it’s supposed to be, and that is where I get the most pushback.”
Hades added, “It definitely comes from within the community. Being a community within a community, you’re always going to be told, ‘This is not the correct way. This is how things have been historically done.’ Outside the community, there’s just really a lack of understanding.”
The pups also said their community is often lumped in with beastality, a frustrating and false association which couldn’t be further from the truth.
“That isn’t pushback; it’s just a blatant display of ignorance,” Hades said. “But, I think we’re growing as a community to where we’re starting to accept there are different ways to do this kink, you know?”
As pup play grows in popularity, and more people explore this expression, the pups hope that the community continues to open up and lower any oppressive boundaries already in place. As she entered the community, Pistol noticed these obstacles firsthand because of her gender.
“Even myself, I thought that all pups were men, gay men, in the leather community, so when I was first introduced to it, whenever I started going to pup moshes, it was at a leather bar, and they weren’t super friendly, so I didn’t get to go as much as I’d liked to,” she said. “[In the future] I see it being a lot more friendly and open to other genders.”
All the pups nodded in agreement.
Hades added, “I would like to see pup events in less male-dominated spaces, or less sexualized spaces, and just be able to be a gateway to start expressing themselves, whether it’s finding out who they are as a person through kink or just finding other kinks through pup play.”
Encouraging inclusive expression within the pup community is an important, ongoing next step, but pup play is also widely considered inherently queer. Along with the kink community in general, pup play presents a challenge of openness and expression to non-LGBTQ communities and in time could push more varied expression to the mainstream.
“I definitely support breaking down the heteronormativity complex that a lot of heterosexual people have regarding kinks, polyamory, whatever it may be,” Rascal said. “I would like to see them enjoy this as a form of self expression just because that would help us to bridge some of the gaps between us, the LGBTQ community, and the heterosexual community. I think getting that exposure and education out there can definitely create a stronger foundation.”
The conversation, radiating with warmth and good intent, ended with ear-to-ear grins, the four pups giddily howling with one another and reinforcing pup play’s core values of community, openness, and self expression.
However you identify, and whoever you are, no one is excluded from pup play, and keeping that community a safe, open place for all people to explore is imperative to all the pups. For anyone outside of the pup community who is curious to learn more but hesitant? Ask!
“Feel free to approach us,” Rascal said. “We don’t want to be stigmatized, and I think asking questions to gain a better understanding, and promoting that safe space, is something that is really important. Ask pups about pup play. If we promote a culture of openness and transparency, I think that will definitely spread our message a lot better.”
And who knows? The next Friday you are out on the town, you might just run into one of these playful pups—just don’t forget to offer a little ear scratch and “Good dog!” before you go on your way.