In the results that follow, we focus on five themes that represent the meaning of, motivations for, and perceived psychological effects of puppy play among participants. We also provide descriptions of puppy play as a practice so that readers understand this unique set of activities. The themes are: sexual pleasure; relaxation, therapy, and escape from self; adult play and vibrant physicality; extending and expressing selfhood; and relationships and community.
For many people who participate in puppy play, and most of our sample, a primary motivation is sexual pleasure. The role of sexual pleasure in puppy play activity varies somewhat, with it often featuring as a prelude to genital sexual activity (as foreplay), whereas for others it is sexual in itself.
Interview: How important is that connection of pup play to sex for you?
Samson: As I said, I started going out as a pup with it being sexual, so to me, it is still there, so I think it is still important to me. However, now that I have been part of a community and I’ve seen there are other sides to it… (Samson, Europe, 35 yrs)
Usually pup out for a bit until I’m super horny before it becomes very sexual. A sex scene may then involve been tied up and edged, anal and eventually being allowed to cum. (Matt, Europe, 32 yrs)
Sexual pleasure is intimately tied to dominance/submission in many cases. Being emotionally, relationally, and sexually subservient to a more dominant pup, handler or other human is a central feature of the role of pup/dog. Being on all fours specifically works to help facilitate a submissive sexual element physically with exposure of buttocks, and possibly genitals, presented ready for penetration. It also positions the pup level with a person’s genitals ready to sniff or suck, acting to facilitate a more submissive sexuality.
It’s much more service orientated so it’s kind of wanting to be of service, wanting to express my love, devotion or respect for someone by being of service to them whether that’s physically, emotionally, financially, sexually or what. (Koda, Europe, 50 yrs)
From a sexual point of view my vision is constantly at groin height, so if I’m horny, plugged and something is on my balls making me aware of them being exposed it’s a heightened sense of foreplay for me. (Matt, Europe, 32 yrs)
Not only are items of puppy paraphernalia like tails vital to the process of becoming a puppy, but the use of “plug-in” tails also plays a role in the sexual element for some people, in contrast to the use of “show tails” that do not require anal insertion but instead strap around the waist. Tails are a piece of puppy play “gear” made mostly in silicone (if designed for anal insertion, though sometimes in fabric if a show tail) designed to enable the wearer to look and act more doglike (e.g., to wag to express enthusiasm). The use of plug-in tails offers the potential for sexual humiliation within an overarching sexually submissive position. This intimate practice also often involves another person in a relational sexual act that requires and deepens trust.
The tail is interesting. The process of having the tail inserted by my handler is a bit humiliating (which I kind of enjoy) and involves trust. Once in it’s a constant reminder I’m plugged and a constant tease. I’m a sexual pup so end goal is to get master’s bone. (Matt, Europe, 32 yrs)
While sexual puppy play is an occasional activity for many participants, there are examples of sexual pup play activity in which there is sustained submissive pup slavery for 24 h or more. In these situations, which mirror traditional BDSM slavery in many ways (Moser & Kleinplatz, 2013; Wiseman, 1996), the pup is permanently submissive and in pup role with no talking or other human activity, while the handler acts as sexual dominant. The use of a collar (“being collared”) is often significant as the collar symbolically represents becoming a dog (wearing the quintessential dog collar) for many, and in the context of D/s, also ownership.
He collared me and put my tail in along with pads for my knees and hands. For the next 24 h I had to be completely a pup. No human talking or anything a human would do. I slept on the floor, ate out of a bowl, and went to the bathroom in the backyard while on a lease. I was also his sexual toy while there. (Mark, USA, 50 yrs)
Dominant/submissive chastity, again common within much BDSM power play (see, for example, Newmahr, 2010; Weiss, 2011), also features within puppy play for some.
Alpha is also the keyholder to my chastity cage, and he only lets me cum about once or twice a month—so I’m always horny for him.…Eventually he fucked me while I stayed locked in my chastity cage. (Mark, USA, 50 yrs)
Although D/s training and sex plays a central role for many within our sample, some pups clearly seek to distinguish their pup role from that of a traditional sexual submissive or slave, highlighting how being a pup is more playful and also more independent-minded. That is, even though there is a degree of submission at play for the person engaging as a pup in sexual puppy play there is a subtle difference claimed by some in which this practice is distinguished from more orthodox D/s and Leather slave sexual activity. The key distinguishing elements are greater independence (agency) allied with more play and less pain and humiliation for the pup.
With the first commands on “sit” repeated several times to me, I elected instead to lie down on the stage. After some coercing I completed some of the tricks. This is just for fun, I see pups (at least the puppy play that I am in) as independent and not slaves. They can be asked to do something, and pulled into performing tricks with treats etc. but at the end of the day it is their choice, and the handler cannot force them. (Chewy, Europe, 21 yrs)
As I said before, I’m normally more into human Master/slave play, and can be particularly sadistic. The major difference with pups is the lack of pain and humiliation, more play and more fun, less sex. (Luke, Europe, 39 yrs)
Finally, as mentioned above, there are some people who engage in pup play who do not engage in sexual practice at all. Indeed, for some, this is very much off-limits with those other motivational factors discussed below much more central. The non-sexual focus on fun, play, and relaxation is contrasted with sexual motivation by some puppies in rather stark terms, even somewhat curiously invoking a zoophilic trope when that is usually strongly resisted by most people who engage in this practice (Wignall & McCormack, 2017).
But I don’t want to have sex with a dog.…So, for me, like there’s this line that’s kind of—kind of like a line of morality, so I would treat a pup like I would treat an actual dog, you know? Be good, you get treats, be bad, you might get a bop on the nose and told not to do that again. (Jax, Europe, 29yrs)
Relaxation, Therapy, and Escape from Self
Most of the participants stress the relaxation that comes from the practice, along with the therapeutic value. It appears that being a puppy offers people an opportunity to let go of adult responsibilities and instead embrace a joyful exuberance unencumbered by expectations about “appropriate” behavior for an adult. As Wignall and McCormack (2017) point out, this playful “freedom” is perceived as a relief from the stresses and strains of adult life and operates as a powerful form of relaxation.
Interviewer: …Is this connected to sex at all for you?
Jax: I don’t think so, no. We haven’t had any sexual play as pups. Anything we’ve done has been outside of the pup play, the pup play’s just kind of like an extension of who we are. We can have a very fun sex life without that (laughter).
Jax: Which is what we do, because I need to keep the puppy play exclusively as a way to escape like the day to day human stuff because there are people that find a lot of that very, very stressful and very straining and they need that escape. (Jax, Europe, 29 yrs)
The role of handler carries responsibility for looking after their puppy or puppies and so does not provide such a straightforwardly relaxing opportunity but is instead more focused on dominance (especially within D/s sexual practice), ownership and/or care with more vulnerable, playful, and sometimes somewhat irresponsible others. The standard joke within the community is that “All handlers are is a walking rucksack for water” (Benny), albeit clearly their role within dominant sexual activity, and in training and looking after pups, means they are much more central to this activity than simply being people with rucksacks to hand ready to provide water to a dehydrated pup. Being a handler therefore involves “helping others,” notably pups in this case, to move from human to pup role and then play as a pup safely, with minimal adult responsibility.
Interviewer: What is it about being a handler that you enjoy?
Benny: It started out being something which was about S&M, it was domination, control. It’s evolved from that to something where basically there is a—it’s the ability to help people.…I literally treated him as a canine, a bio-canine and that seemed to—he opened up and something like that is really, for me, very satisfying, because it actually—I get the satisfaction—I’m satisfied by helping others. (Benny, Europe, 42 yrs)
As has been noted previously (Wignall & McCormack, 2017), the notion of puppy headspace is a critical aspect of the experience of puppy play. Although some participants report being able to enter headspace on their own in quiet contemplation, detailed descriptions of experiences of puppy headspace reveal something akin to a physically active mindfulness for many others.
Interviewer: Is being a pup, that moment of full pupping out, is that something that you crave when you’re not doing it?
Rex: Yeah, sometimes especially if I’ve had a really shit day at work or whatever, you know, I’ve got a lot of human space sort of stuff on my mind and things like that and sometimes I just sort of crave just being able to just put it away in a box for an hour or what have you. And whether that and just playing with a toy or whether it be just curling up on my big bean bag and what have you in my collar and just going for a nap, so I do certainly after a very stressful day I sort of crave the simplest, you know. (Rex, Europe, 31 yrs)
Temporality is key here as the focus is intensely in the present, with worries about past or future stripped away. Participants describe a sense of being a puppy as “simple” and “immediate,” unfettered by an excess of cognitive processing or reflective thought. What is felt is then intensified. Even though it was clearly possible for some to experience the puppy headspace without use of any equipment, for many the process of becoming a puppy is facilitated through the use of puppy paraphernalia. Participants described the use of “gear,” notably including the puppy hood, knee and paw pads, collar and tail as well as shifts in their body, moving on to all fours and becoming nonverbal, communicating only as a dog would. Hoods served to limit visual awareness with a more limited focus, and restrict hearing, while also involving auditory feedback through hearing your own breath, both likely helpful in enabling the wearer to stay focused on mundane repetitive tasks like batting a ball around.
And then finally pulling on this tight leather hood that I’ve got that literally has a dogs face, muzzle, that kind of thing so normally when I pull the hood on for myself that is very much that’s the point where I kind of allow myself to shed the ability to talk and with the ability to talk it kind of allows me then to almost Zen like enter a much more preverbal state; I stop talking so I stop thinking in words and it becomes a much more emotional primal headspace that I allow myself to then fall into. (Koda, Europe, 50 yrs)
In addition to the impact of hoods, gloves, and tails, there were also certain activities and sensations that played a role in the transformation process of moving from human to pup role. Some described how the sound of a squeaky toy or act of playing with a ball would also help shift their perception from human to dog. It is important to note that the psychological benefits of puppy headspace are not the result of mimicking a puppy per se. That is, even though being a puppy necessitates a person acting like a puppy (on all fours, non-speaking, being playful, etc.) this is not sufficient for the experience of puppy headspace. In addition to mimesis is the need to “become a puppy.” By becoming a puppy the practitioner is able to switch off—or strip away—being human, at least temporarily. The essence of puppy headspace is an unreflective and unprocessed now, in which a person’s adult sensibilities and responsibilities are cast off, as if one actually were a dog.
Interviewer: Since you’ve phrased it that way, for you what is the difference between pup play and pretending to be a dog?
Samson: …I think there’s a lot going on in our heads. As I say, I think the pup headspace is very much a stripping away of a lot of that, but fundamentally you’re still—you still have human processes. If you were unable to strip away those processes and you were still concerned about everything else that’s going on around you and those thought cascades, the depression and anxiety was still present, I think that would stop you from getting into the headspace. I think at that point, just mimicking a dog, I don’t think the individual would get any benefit from it. (Samson, Europe, 35 yrs)
Interviewer: How important is the experience of headspace to pup play for you?
Milo: Pretty important, so…otherwise you’re not really pupping out, you’re just a person with a mask on. (Milo, Europe, 32 yrs)
In a similar manner to headspace among submissives/masochists in BDSM, puppy headspace (or “pupspace”) indicates the moment in which there is minimal reflective self at play. That is, in line with the arguments from Baumeister (1988, 1991) about the appeal of masochism, a central feature of the psychological experience of puppy play is an escape from self. Indeed, Baumeister’s (1991) description of the key elements of masochism as escape from self is also remarkably resonant for understanding puppy play too. However, there are some subtle but important differences in the process of stripping away the self between the pup experience reported here and Baumeister’s theory of escape from self. He argues that the process of stripping away the self is achieved through reduction in esteem, loss of control, becoming someone else, merging with the partner, and becoming concrete and rigid. Much of this is highly salient for puppy play of course but—as mentioned above—although the aim is to cast off a person’s human (reflective) self there remains a degree of agency and control in puppy play, along with a focus on play (discussed below), that marks it off experientially from being simply understood in exactly the same terms as masochism or submission.
Adult Play and Vibrant Physicality
The value of adult play features as a critical factor in puppy play for most participants. This notion is of course immediately present through the choice to be a puppy rather than dog in most, though not all, cases (one participant identified as a “hound” or “service dog,” another as a “wolf,” for instance). Puppies are inherently playful, mischievous and also much loved in Western cultures (McHugh, 2004). Play is associated with freedom with recognition of how this is typically associated with children’s play.
Because it’s fun and I feel very free. Very free. And… yeah. I don’t think that life allows for much freedom really. And so like obviously everyone is always, you know, craving freedom and it’s just one way to achieve it, I guess, even if it’s for a little while. (Bella, Australia, 20 yrs)
One of us bounces one ball to the other and they throw the other ball simultaneously. We haven’t communicated it before hand, we just do it. And we play like this for several minutes. I’m in the headspace. It dawns on me at one point that we’re two adults, dressed as pups, playing a child’s a game. Then I shrug the thought off and carry on. (John, Europe, 31 yrs)
In classic leather/BDSM terms, puppies also require discipline and training in order to mature into dogs that are pleasant to have around the house. Interestingly, for most participants in our study the focus of their practice remains consistently fixed on being a puppy with a transition from puppy to dog abandoned. A key reason for this is the importance of engaging in play, the appeal of chasing a ball and having fun with physical rough and tumble play with others. The freedom of the pup can be contrasted with the role of the handler, who carries not only the water but also much of the adult responsibility, keeping an eye out for safety and the passing of time as the pups play.
Participants were clear to explain this was not a delusional practice: they do not believe they actually are puppies, but instead a serious creation of a play space in which they may lose themselves in a moment of role-play through physical exertion, joy, and a vibrant physicality that is apparently unavailable to them in other ways in their lives.
But if I choose to act more animal like it’s because I made that decision to that, and it was enjoyable and it’s fun. But in the same way, when something’s not enjoyable and not fun I have to be able to move away from it and I feel fully capable of doing that. I don’t believe that I’m ever in such a psychotic state. (Thor, Australia, 44 yrs)
The inherent physicality of puppy play, with people running around on all fours batting balls to and fro, playing rough and tumble with each other or otherwise being “playful puppies” is undoubtedly important for many participants. Puppy play also appeared to serve a beneficial purpose in terms of the value of bodily touch and changing a person’s body image, providing an important barrier-free (non-sexual) space for physical affection and even the opportunity for an improved sense of body image. Not only is there an escape from the self in psychological terms but also a sense of being able to step back from a person’s bodily inhibitions and enjoy and embrace their physicality.
Interviewer: Do you have any sense of what it is about the pup role that particularly draws you in?
Lucky: I think the playfulness, the kind of the physicality of it is a big thing. I love that as a puppy I can, you know, brush up against people, rub up against, people feel more free to pet me, touch me. So, I love that I can play around. I can be silly. (Lucky, USA, 42 yrs)
Because of pup play I learnt to almost like my body, so it’s more of dressing up and showing the body than the other way around of, oh I like this gear, I will look great in it.…I don’t wear full body outfits just because this is where the pup play has got me. It’s, rather than about the gear, it’s about me throwing off the body. If that makes sense? (Mickey, Europe, 27 yrs)
Concerns about prejudice regarding age, something that is felt to be particularly acute within gay/bisexual male communities (Monaghan, 2005), may also be ameliorated through the use of gear in puppy play allied to a pup attitude. There is clearly some sense of being able to “pass” (Goffman, 1963) here, with the puppy gear allowing people to express how they feel they are “inside” rather than feeling bound by expectations around age appropriate activity.
Got my pup stuff on back at my apartment because I’ve never liked people seeing me change, think it spoils the effect, if they only ever see the pup then that’s what they remember, even more important now I’m 62, gays are very ageist…I’m slightly sad because I never think of myself as 62 and never act it, but my age is what I’m judged and condemned for, on sight. Thankfully, the pup looks like I really am inside. (Jake, Europe, 62 yrs)
The physicality of pup play is not all positive, however, as some participants reported feeling detached or alienated from their environment if they were unable to engage in the same physical manner as others, particularly if they were less physically fit or older. Regardless, even these situations were creatively refigured so that their detachment made sense. In the example below, we can see how this participant sought to story his experience as “a dog hiding under the table during fireworks” as a way to make sense of his activity and place within the setting.
I attended an event and found myself detached from the goings-on. Too out of shape to chase balls, too noise sensitive to pounce balloons, too independent to seek out a temporary handler for an inconsequential scritch behind the ear. But the venue had a cage-like alcove by the entrance, and I spent a cozy hour in there, volunteering to uphold the illusion of confinement in exchange for a deep sense of safety. Folks asked me if I had been naughty or if I was alright. I was fine. Just a dog hiding under the table during fireworks. (Barney, Europe, 45 yrs)
Extending and Expressing Selfhood
Beyond the psychologically benefits of relaxation, mindfulness, escape from self, and play described above, it was also apparent that puppy play had an additional psychological role in how it enabled some participants the opportunity to explore different aspects of their personality. BDSM practice has previously been discussed for the potential benefits it might have for exploring different aspects of selfhood (see, for example, Easton, 2013; Henkin, 2013). What is unusual here is how there can be human and (non-human) animal “I-positions” (Hermans, 1996, 2001, 2003) that express different aspects of selfhood. This might involve an otherwise quiet and/or reserved person feeling more confident or outgoing or a serious person being more playful. The key is how the puppy role enables the participant to explore a new “I-position,” a new aspect of selfhood, try it on for size, or express some personal perception of the “real me.”
I suppose in a way pup play unlocks the confidence that every person has and enables you to make new friends and to say hello to strangers and let them touch you. (Pete, USA, 22 yrs)
Jake: I’ve done a little bit of pony, but not much. Pup suits me a lot better.
Interviewer: Do you know why that is? How does pony compare to pup play for you?
Jake: Well, it’s easier to say that pup play, when I’m pupping out, it’s more like the real me that’s coming out and the real me can come out when I’m a pup, but it can’t do when I’m not, if you see what I mean.…Yeah, the pups are very playful. He’s like a little child, you know, a bit naughty, and really inside I’m like a little child as well… (Jake, Europe, 62 yrs)
Further, participants also describe how their puppy persona can be helpful to their human persona, with these two otherwise separate aspects of selfhood coming into dialogue with each other over time. Here, participants not only experience a new I-position but demonstrate the power of the (non-human) animal aspect of a dialogical self (the mind’s ability to imagine different aspects of self in dialogue) to transfer to the human I-position in such a way that they can learn and develop on the basis of their puppy identity and practice.
For me, I think I realised at some point last year, that actually my pup self is leaking into my human self; there are a lot of strengths that my pup self has. When I was in pup space, there was a lot of positive characteristics that I thought, “Actually, do you know what, I would like to borrow these and put them into my human life,” so it gave me more confidence to take more risks and to be a bit more brash with myself in my day-to-day life. (Samson, Europe, 35 yrs)
At its most extreme, this can also be an activity in which the puppy persona assists the human in managing their mental health. In the example below, the participant describes how they believe their puppy persona helps reduce worry and that they facilitate the process of carrying this aspect of their sense of self with them through symbolic identity tags (a collar and tattoo). The collar and tattoo act as tokens of an important aspect of identity and were relatively common across the sample.
I, generally, keep King with me a lot of the time because it stops me worrying a lot and it makes me care less about what people think of me, so…I mean, when I’m wearing this or the chain collar King is always here. I’ve even got to the point of having a…tattoo…to symbolise that King is always part of me. It’s not something you just switch off. (King, Europe, 27 yrs)
Relationships and Community
A key element for most participants that was not explored in the study by Wignall and McCormack (2017) was the way that puppy play is inherently relational. People did of course describe moments in which they sat alone in their puppy hood or curled up in their dog basket in order to experience what they perceived as the psychologically beneficial qualities of this practice but much more common were rich descriptions of being a puppy in relation with other puppies, handlers and the wider community. For the vast majority of participants, puppy play involves deep and meaningful relationships with a number of potential others: other pups, packs, handlers (where either of those exist), and crucially the wider puppy community locally and around the world, in person and online.
So, it’s the relationality between the way I feel internally and also the way people then treat me, see me, and then that encourages it more and more and more. I find it much more difficult, say, when I’m by myself to feel that same kind of connection, that same kind of development of my pup side, if that makes sense. (Bruno, Europe, 27 yrs)
There’s kind of a very deep emotional connection that I can feel well up when I’m then actually looking at my man, it’s more than just a oh this is my good friend, this is someone that I care about, it becomes much more a very primal attitude of this is my man, this is the head of my pack, this is the person I’m devoted to. Actually devoted is probably a perfect word, there is that kind of welling of a sheer I will do anything for this person but it’s not necessarily in word thoughts, it’s a purely emotional reaction… (Koda, Europe, 50 yrs)
The puppy self is also co-produced for very many of our participants, with one or several others playing a key role in helping to effect the process of transformation from human to pup. This may take the shape of handlers or alphas (puppies who are hierarchically more dominant) physically assisting pups in putting on their gear (lacing up hoods, pulling on mitts and so on), or finding other ways to facilitate the shift into puppy headspace by, as a commonly mentioned example, adopting a style of speech one would usually hear directed toward “real” (or “bio-”) dogs.
He’s driving but he’s also kind of half chatting to me through the rear view mirror but gradually as I’m transitioning he’s expecting less and less conversation from me and the tone and the manner of his talking gradually gets less and less as you would an equal and a friend and more and more kind of gets that sort of cajoling tone that you have when you’re talking to a dog, you know, so there’s much more “Oh, where’s my boy, there’s my… good boy, oh look, oh he’s got is…good boy,” you know, that kind of tone as he I suppose gradually starts to adopt the handler perspective and begins to view me less and less as a person and more and more as his dog. (Koda, Europe, 50 yrs)
The relationships between puppies and the various others who help produce the transformation are invariably characterized by deep trust and affection, whether this is toward the human handler, or to other puppies within a pack, or simply to other close friends within broader pup community. Participants often deployed familial terms to describe their relationships with other puppies similar in nature to those used in LGBQ communities (“families of choice”: Weston, 1991), or associated their pack relationships with their human world attachments, romantic, or otherwise. Indeed, pup relationships often carry through into the human world as close interpersonal bonds.
I’ve now become a pack with my alpha, who is my best friend, and I have now a pup brother. I’ve just been, kind of, building a relationship with him and I don’t get to see him that often, but we do chat a lot. (Rufus, Europe, 37 yrs)
It’s not just an acquaintance, he’s not—it is very—he said, “I’m as close to family as non-blood can get.” (Benny, Europe, 42 yrs)