Already the howls leak onto 12th Street. And as you pass through the heavy black doors of San Francisco's go-to gay biker hangout, The Eagle, the scene that greets you isn't the expected handful of dudes quietly gathered at the bar to catch the Warriors game. It's more like a rave at the SPCA.
Bare-assed except for tail-shaped butt plugs and Nasty Pig jock straps, sporting custom leather puppy masks and MMA mitts, several go-go boys hop and fidget to Berlin techno above the packed crowd. Huge cutouts of snarling pooches and giant bones loom over the dance floor. On the back patio, a hunky daddy dressed to the leather nines sits in a large chair, reading a newspaper, puffing a fat stogie, and resting his feet on a coiled human pup, who excitedly chews on a squeaky SpongeBob. A bootblack and a barber, both dressed only in latex aprons, ply their grooming trades with fanatical skill. Over in the corner a big cage rattles, as the human pups inside bark and throw themselves against the bars.
This is Pound Puppy, the monthly party that's quickly become one of the most successful in San Francisco, combining fetish imagery from the thriving human puppy BDSM roleplaying scene with underground dance music. (Yes, there are drag queen poodles.) Pound Puppy is where you'll find a lot of the queer artists, intellectuals, and fetishists who've survived the city's skyrocketing rents and evictions. You'll also find an infusion of freshly-arrived tech workers, eager to experiment with sexual identity and escape the "boring techie" stereotype. In a dog-eat-dog world, everyone's letting out their inner pup.
Pound Puppy is just one of a spate of pup-themed dance parties that have exploded along the West Coast, including Seattle's ARF! and The Kennel in Los Angeles. In terms of actual fetish play, the promoters admit that their parties differ from traditional puppy play parties, which have been around for decades and usually include mosh pits (rough-and-tumble puppy play pens), tons of sniffing and licking, and hours of immersive role play.
But parties like Pound Puppy are giving the human K9 community more visibility and stoking fascination with pup culture. That culture is growing: young devotees are posting Pets Express shopping haul pics to their Facebook pages, and choke chains are de rigeur. With its sleek gear and playful vibe, K9 has a certain trendy cache. And for the curious, it offers a gentle launch pad into the world of BDSM.
But for many, the draw of pup-themed club nights is that they provide a more human connection than they find in online interactions.
"The ARF! concept came from a growing desire to express affection through touch and bouts of submission and control," says DJ Nark of his party, which regularly draws fetish porn royalty and local celebrities like Dan Savage. "The quintessential meaning of a gay bar is to express your inner desires freely. Part of the purpose of ARF! is to give a soft scratch behind their ear, and let the community know that we want to play with them too."
That sense of support has in turn boosted the virtues of pup life on the web. "Pup play is definitely more visible now, among my generation," said young pup Amp, a member of SEAPAH (Seattle Pups and Handlers) who helps DJ Nark with the party. "We see a lot more [human puppy sites], and know where and how to find the answer to questions, should we have any."
Pound Puppy's Jorge Portillo told me, "Pup play is a fresh take on the traditional 'master and servant.' K9 imagery is great because a lot of this generation of fetishists, it seems, are embracing sex as something less structured. Our party creates a space that is accessible and relatable to people seeking a way to explore something different about themselves. It's a bonding experience based on timeless instinct."
Alpha Pup Turbo is often at Pound Puppy with his pack, whose hierarchy includes beta and omega pups, a barking order he keeps in place with a soft touch and familial nudge. He also has a handler, who named him and watches over him. Pup Turbo, a teacher and researcher at UC Santa Cruz, told me, "When you think about real dogs, or 'bio pups,' and their owners, there is a lot of variability in those relationships. Dogs often have a lot of power in the relationship, so handler or alpha status affords more nuance and flexibility.
"I've met handlers and alphas who are very strict with their pups," Pup Turbo continued, "with many rules, leaning toward more of a control dynamic. I've also met handlers and alphas who are really more interested in the playful, nurturing, and mentoring aspect of the relationship. Dominance is maintained and respected, but in a less controlling manner. My relationship with my handler is more on the nurturing side, and that is also how I am with members of my pack."
Trending parties aside, puppy play is already a vibrant institution. Figaro Pup is the 28-year-old International Puppy 2015 titleholder, president of VAN-PAH (Vancouver Pups and Handlers), and alpha of the Wruff Pack. He's a natural nuzzler who signs his emails "woofs and wags" and whose name reflects his classical singing interest. He loves "snickerdoodles, scritches, moshing, and sitting with his tongue out."
Figaro Pup identifies as a border collie. "I share a lot of traits with the breed. I get bored easily unless something is really holding my attention. I am always trying to keep groups together or herd people or pups. My husband is my handler, although I and the other pups in our pack call him Daddy. A typical day is surprisingly mundane. We do all of the normal things that couples do, work, chores etc. There are just a lot of little things that call out our other relationship dynamics. We switch from husbands to daddy/puppy fairly seamlessly. When we kiss hello, maybe I'll get some scritches behind the ear, or I'll play with a squeaky toy while we watch TV, unless it gets taken away."
In order to win his best-in-show title at the International Puppy Contest in St. Louis last year, he went up against several others, judged on gear, paw-shaking, a short speech, and his ability to improvise play when given a paper bag that contained mystery items. He talked to me just after he returned from January's big Mid-Atlantic Leather Conference in DC (the big S-M convention, along with the Chicago's International Mr. Leather Weekend in May), where he had been promoting his anti-suicide initiative Project Touch Base.
But mostly Pup Figaro was ecstatic to have come into contact with other pups. All the pups I talked to cited a real-life encounter that sent them on their K9 journey. "A few boys were out in puppy hoods and tails at a leather bar here in Seattle," Pup Amp told me. "What first drew me to the puppies was a connection that one of the puppies had with his significant other, his handler. They were very cute, sweet, and affectionate in a way that was so much more than boyfriends. They just seemed to glow with energy."
Pup Figaro describes the openness of the community. "Pups come in all varieties. There are male pups, female pups, trans pups, gay pups, straight pups, leather pups, rubber pups, military gear pups, sports gear pups… It's a friendly way to try something in the kink and fetish world and see if it resonates." Human pup play also overlaps with the furry and other fetish communities, forming a network that thrums with diverse expressions.
There's another reason puppy play may be on the upswing: a generation has come of age after AIDS, which wiped out many of the daddies that would usually guide them through the ins and outs of gay sexuality. The puppy play community offers a code to try out, a little guidance paired with emotional connection.
Or maybe it's just hot. Two of the elders of the puppy play community, Papa Wolf and Brue, offer a more expansive look at the scene.
Papa Wolf is the cheerful co-owner of the International Puppy Contest, a teacher and historian of the kink who takes it way back. "The first notations of puppy play appear in the leather community around the 1960s," he told me. Papa Woof has also written about puppy play in anthropological terms, citing ancient customs of therianthropy, or non-sexual animal role play.
Brue identifies as a dog rather than a pup. "I've been in the community too long," he laughs.) Brue organizes the annual Woof Camp area of the International Mr. Leather gathering, which offers everything from Happy Puppy Yoga to advice on good pup health. (Running around on all fours can seriously dehydrate you.) Along with his SF K9 Unit organization, he puts on Woof Camp Weekend, allowing some prime fetch opportunities in the great outdoors.
"As with any curiosity, people want to explore the latest trend," Brue says of pup-themed club nights. "Because of this, advertisers and businesses are tapping into the 'newer' market. My observation is superhero play will probably be the next big thing."
Both Papa Woof and Brue take great pains to insist that puppy play is not about bestiality (although the latest promo video for the Pound Puppy party features a well-bearded man playing tongue hockey with a very licky pit bull). They also emphasize that being a human pup is not a "cookie-cutter lifestyle," and that its biggest strength is its flexibility when it comes to handler-pup relationships.
"Puppy life is about inhabiting a headspace," says Papa Woof, about living out an alternate reality, offline and surrounded by a supportive pack.
"Have you ever owned a pet?" Papa Woof asks. "How many times have you come home from a stressed day and thought, what a wonderful life they have? Someone to pet, feed, play with them. They are happy, mostly carefree… That's what the headspace of puppy play is all about. Putting the binds of the human world to the side for a while and just puppying out. Not having to deal with the sucky thing called being an adult!"
Paws up for that.
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