It's Thursday night at The DC Eagle, and Pup Gryphn is in his element. He bats a neon green football with his red paws, the glow of the ball in the darkness complementing his lime green and black armbands and harness. He barks, sits, kneels and plays fetch on command, attentive to the directions shouted at him. Playful, affectionate, even a bit rambunctious, Gryphn is fully immersed in what is known as “pup headspace,” a level of consciousness where his actions and behaviors mimic those of a biological dog, whether he's crawling on the floor, wagging the 13-inch-long silicone tail attached to his belt, or playing an impromptu game of tug of war with his favorite stuffed toy, “Moose on a Noose.”
“For me, headspace is letting go of the human condition, everything that's going on,” he says. “You know, ‘Did I leave the stove on?' Letting go of all that and adopting this other mindset. For me, it's a puppy. I get down on all fours, I bark, I act like a dog. You adopt that mindset. ‘Ooh, squirrel!' And suddenly you're chasing a squirrel for no reason at all. It's a lot of fun. It's good stress relief.”
Gryphn, 28, the current Mid-Atlantic Puppy 2016 titleholder and a member of the Mid-Atlantic Kennel Korps, is one of a growing number of people taking part in puppy play. It's a scene that, while not leather-centric, grew out of the leather and BDSM communities and is often lumped in with other fetishes that may be unfamiliar to the casual observer. It's a world that, although slowly gaining acceptance, is still misunderstood.
Gryphn's roots in puppy play began slightly over a year ago, but his interest in headspace dates back to the early 2000s, when he was first introduced to the “furry” community, a subset of the fetish and kink community where people dress in costumes that have the anthropomorphic characteristics of an animal. He began chatting with people in online forums, including the virtual roleplay game, Second Life. In 2010, he finally attended his first convention for furries — Midwest FurFest in Chicago.
“Someone gave me the unique opportunity to wear the fur suit of a blue fox,” he says. “That's when I learned what headspace is, adapting that character and moving forward with it.” He would later apply the same concept to his involvement in puppy play.
Reaching the proper headspace needed to participate in puppy play depends on each individual's ability to achieve mental focus.
“Sometimes it's a process,” he says. “Sometimes it's just sitting down, and, boom, you're in headspace. Sometimes it has to be sit down and just meditate and slowly drop everything off until you're into that space. For me, I have a very weird trigger. Let's say I'm in a space with mirrors. If I'm in pup headspace and I see myself in a mirror without pup headgear on, I snap right back. Because what I see in the mirror isn't a puppy, it's someone on all fours pretending to be a puppy.”
While gear, such as a harness, collar and tail enhance the puppy play experience, Gryphn stresses it's not essential to participate, save a pair of mitts and knee pads.
“At a minimum, I would recommend you get a set of mitts, and a pair of knee pads, because your basic position is up on your knuckles and on your knees,” he says. “And if you're in that position for a while, it causes a lot of stress on your joints. The knee pads and mitts — I use MMA gloves — prevent the impact from reaching your bones and joints so you can do it for longer.”
For Pup Domino, a 22-year-old “unowned boy pup” from Washington, D.C., headspace is easy to achieve, regardless of whether he is regaled in full gear.
“I have an acting background, so that kind of helps me a little bit, in that I can very easily jump into a role,” says Domino. “When I'm on my knees and down, I'm like, ‘This is great. Let's go. We're about to have fun. We're about to pup out all the way. Let's do it!'”
For others, including Pup Nubi, 24, of Falls Church, Va., the right gear — particularly a puppy mask — is the key to helping achieve the right headspace.
“The first time I ever got it was from the gear itself,” says Nubi. “The first time I put on my hood, I felt a connection with it. Just sort of exploring the space I was in, exploring my room. When you start to get into headspace, any kind of self-conscious thoughts — thoughts about what you have to do the next day — go away. So when you're in headspace, you're very, very focused on what's in front of you. But it's easier to get there with someone else, which is why we have handlers.”
IN THE PUP COMMUNITY, handlers function the same way dog owners do, keeping a watchful eye on their charge and reining in the pups if needed. It's the handlers who train the pups and teach them discipline, doling out rewards or punishments based on good or bad behavior.
“Think of any bio-dog,” Gryphn says. “You can train them. It's this ‘go do this' reward system, just like a bio-dog. So let's say you're playing fetch, you throw the ball, the pup picks it up, brings it back, and drops it at your feet. You're going to reward him, whether it's petting him or anything like that.
“Or, let's go to an extreme,” he continues. “Let's say you're doing pup play around the house and the pup decides to pee on the floor. Obviously the pup is going to be punished for that. Typically, when we're being humans, it's ‘Why would you correct me in front of so-and-so? That's wrong, don't do that. Don't speak for the next five minutes,' something like that.”
Just like the pups they are tasked with watching over, some handlers need to enter their own headspace when engaging in puppy play.
“My headspace is equivalent to the mom who sees her kid in danger, or the dad who wants to teach his son how to play football,” says Nubi's 27-year-old handler, Sam. “It's the concept of the teacher and nurturer…. My job is to make sure that while he's in headspace, I'm keeping him safe.”
Of course, close relationships, particularly those in the kink community, take time to build due to the amount of trust needed. The first time a handler and pup engage in pup play, one or both of the parties may hold back a little.
“The first time I met Sam, it was at The Eagle, at a pup night just like this, six or seven months ago,” recalls Nubi. “He was handling me at that pup night, but I didn't get super deep into headspace because there wasn't that trust yet. The longer I've been his pup, the easier it is for me to get deeper into to that headspace with him, because there's trust.”
A similar foundation was the basis for the mentorship role assumed by Sir Haydn, of Arlington, and his mentee, Pup Stitch, who has another owner but sought out Sir Haydn for advice.
“I'm a fairly new pup,” says Stitch. “Someone told me that I should speak with Sir Haydn about his experience, not only as a pup, but also a handler. We developed a friendship and a closeness and from there it was really a natural progression of a relationship, where I was seeking a handler. I felt I needed someone who could train me and teach me some of the intricacies of being a pup.”
Part of a handler's job that ties into that trust is making sure no harm comes to the pup while in that headspace. In that case, a handler's best tools are his powers of observation and five basic senses.
“I tell people that if you're going to be a good handler, you have to listen well,” Sam says. “I can hear when Pup needs something faster, because of the difference in the grunts or the moans.” Sam also says that watching a pup's eyes, his interactions with people, and his reaction time to certain commands can signal whether a pup needs to take a rest or break for water.
“A pup should never get so dry that he has to ask for water,” he says. “A handler should know that even if he's not whimpering for water, you know this is the time for something that he needs.”
Sir Paris, the handler of a female wolf pup known as Pup Horo, agrees that certain behaviors can indicate a pup is in distress, such as a previously playful pup who is becoming more aggressive, sweating profusely, or seems lethargic. He says it is up to handlers to keep a watchful eye on their charges, who are placing their trust in the handlers to watch out for their best interests.
“For us, it's easier maybe than some others,” says Horo. “We've been together for 23 years. If I don't trust him after all this time, it's not going to happen. I do trust him implicitly to be there and know if I'm getting overheated. I'm an asthmatic, so if I need my inhaler, he can tell the signs, he can read me. He's able to read my body because of the amount of time we've spent playing in BDSM play, so he knows when to stop. He knows when I've reached saturation point.”
A PUP AND HANDLER'S relationship is more than just a glorified pet-sitter. Each pup and handler have to work out the details of what they're looking to get out of the experience.
“Everyone's role is different, everyone's dynamic is different,' says Gryphn. “With my dynamic right now, we decided very early on in meeting that we were boyfriends first. So before anything ever happens, we're equal. Then when we're getting into roleplay or scenes, he becomes above me. But in every other aspect, we're equal.”
Other handlers exert more dominance over their charges, as in the case of Sir Paris and Horo.
“We have a sir/girl dynamic normally,” says Horo. “For me to get into the wolf headspace, I usually have to put the gear on. That sort of helps, especially the wolf collar, which I wear only when in pup space. But my girl collar stays on all the time.”
Other pups don't even have handlers, acting as more-or-less free agents who occasionally submit to a temporary handler. Such is the case with Domino and his two friends, Bragi, 23, and Indigo, 25. None of them have official handlers, though Bragi is in talks with someone about establishing such a relationship. All three are members of the Mid-Atlantic Kennel Korps (MAKK), a local organization for people interested in puppy play.
“We're all technically packmates, that's what we call ourselves,” says Bragi. “It's like a brotherhood, in a way.”
Eli Onyx, Mr. Maryland Leather 2016 and a sir and handler to three different puppies, tries to establish a personal, individualized relationship with each of his pups, in order to gauge what they're seeking to get out of the pup-handler dynamic.
“I need to know the dynamic of the pup, what exactly are they looking for,” he says. “One of the things I ask them all the time is: ‘What are you looking for from a handler?' And one of the things I find, just as with children or a real pup, is that they're looking for structure, they want to be obedient, they want discipline. Being a trainer, I like that aspect of it.”
The diversity in the pup community is so varied, some pups actually collar each other as part of a pack, rather than having an individualized handler.
“It's just like a pack mentality,” Gryphn says. “You have your alpha beta, omega, gamma. Gamma is, for lack of a better term, a slave. They live to serve and that's all they do. Your omegas are a little bit higher. Your betas are playful, but they're subservient. And typically, your alpha will only be subservient to maybe one, two other people, depending on the whole dynamic of the pack.”
THE DIVERSITY WITHIN the community also extends to opinions about mixing puppy play with sex. For some, puppy play is completely independent of sex. For others, it's part of the fuller experience.
“Typically, my pup is not sexual,” Gryphn says. “My personal preference is usually not to mix pup play and sex.”
Pup Horo has a similar view.
“It's not sexual,” she says. “It's totally about being able to just be, and have fun being in the moment…. Even the humping, it's not really a sexual thing, it's just part of the play.”
Others have polyamorous or open relationships in their personal lives that allow them to have a kink partner who is separate from their real life spouse or partner. Depending on the spouse, they may either shun pup or other fetish scenes entirely, or slowly be brought into the fold after becoming more comfortable with their significant other's bedroom preferences.
“One of my friends was married to his husband, and had a sir outside of their relationship,” says Gryphn. “That sir eventually decided that ‘My collar would be best served by your husband,' so now his husband has become his sir.”
An alternative arrangement works best for Sam and Pup Nubi.
“Pup and I have what I feel is one of the most ideally perfect connections between our personal and kink life,” Sam says. “Both of us have other partners, so we come into this space, and then we come out of it, knowing the boundaries of where your kink and non-kink relationships begin and end.”
Of course, even among partners, two individuals will approach sex from different perspectives. Sam needs to mentally distance his sexual activity from the pup scene, but for Nubi, it's easier to stay in character.
“I actually have trouble when we transition from pup play to having sex,” Sam explains. “Like, ‘No, I can't have you whimper like that when we're having sex,' because I don't want to mix that world. It's interesting, because he doesn't have to come out of pup mode to have me fuck him. I personally have to bring him out of pup perception for me. But then I'm still treating him as a submissive to me.”
“I get self-conscious very easily,” says Nubi. “So being in pup headspace in the bedroom keeps me very focused on exactly what's in front of me, so it sort of serves a function in that respect.”
THE BIGGEST HINDRANCE to full acceptance by the larger BDSM and leather communities, even as MAL welcomes pups with open arms, are the misconceptions that some people have about puppy play, the practitioners say. Unfortunately, those misconceptions can lead to potentially embarrassing or uncomfortable situations when a person who knows little about the puppy play scene stumbles upon it.
“One of the hardest things about being a handler is that I've honestly had people ask, ‘Wait, you have sex with animals?'” Sam says. “They believe it's abusive, that it's taking advantage of someone who may not be acting up to a level of human responsibility…. The other misperception is that I have some really messed up background, like, did I have some horrible childhood trauma that made me like to have sex with animals.”
Other outsiders may not have a sense of personal space, believing they can touch or grab the puppies as they wish.
“I have three separate tails. I have my show tail, which attaches to my belt, and I have two other tails, which are insertables,” Gryphn says. “This is something I feel very strongly about. I have been in the center of a bar, elbow-to-elbow, and someone has grabbed my tail — and it was my show tail — and yanked on it. I stopped everything I was doing in mid-sentence, turned around, and educated the person about it.
“I said, ‘Look, I know you don't know what you just did. I'm not upset with you. I'm not going to yell at you. However, what I have on now is a show tail. It's on my belt. Typically, it's inserted. If you were to grab and yank, you would cause damage.' So the moral of the story is: don't touch a pup's tail unless you have permission, whether it be from the pup or the handler.”
Other things for people not entrenched in the puppy play scene to remember are that power dynamics are often at play, and can be strictly enforced, particularly at more formal gatherings such as Mid-Atlantic Leather. For instance, Gryphn says, a pup is not expected to step out of his place, either within the hierarchy of a pack or with his handler. If a pup is collared, the protocol is not to try to engage the pup until one has asked for permission from the handler. If the handler is not immediately available, it is the pup's duty to ask for permission from the handler.
“Even though pups are not actual dogs, try to go about it as you would approach someone's dog,” says Pup Indigo. “You wouldn't just be mean and pull on a dog's tail. You'd go up to them and say, ‘Can I pet your dog?' The same kind of manners that you would afford someone who has a pet, you should afford someone who has a collard human pup.
“Ultimately, what I would tell people is this: when you see a puppy, when you see them moshing and everything, it's not something that should be feared or make you say, ‘I don't know what to do,' adds Indigo. “It's going to sound cliche, but pups don't bite. If you're interested in talking to them, go up to them, get down on their level, and try to get their attention. Show them you want to be welcoming to them. Basically, just treat the pups with respect.”
The Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend Puppy Park, co-hosted by the New York City Pups and Handlers, is Saturday, Jan. 16, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Hyatt Regency Ballroom, 400 New Jersey Ave. NW. For MAL weekend pass prices and more information, visit leatherweekend.com.
For more information on the Mid-Atlantic Kennel Korps, visit makkorps.org.
Photographed by Todd Franson at the DC Eagle, Thursday, January 7, 2016.
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