SAN FRANCISCO — Men are dogs, some more so than others.
There are those, for example, who wear puppy hoods, harnesses, chain collars and tails while out and about. Sometimes they appear in packs. While hardly as mainstream as walking the red carpet with kink-adjacent accouterments, dressing up doggy style has become more visible in San Francisco and beyond.
Puppy play enthusiasts are part of a larger community interested in bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism, collectively known as B.D.S.M. Participants primarily consider it a form of sexual role play, because they get to act like puppies — friendly, frisky, often nonverbal — and gain pleasure from doing so. Adherents, lots of whom are young gay men, adopt pet names: Pups named Turbo, Wonkey, Level, Twitch, Trigger, Cakes, Amp and Mowgli spoke to me for this story.
“You stop using words and start communicating in growls. It’s really fun,” said Phillip Hammack, 42, a University of California Santa Cruz psychology professor who goes by Pup Turbo. “You’re disconnecting from the human side of thinking about every little thing you’re doing. You’re being instinctual and playful.”
Jason, a 27-year-old entrepreneur in Boulder, Colo., who goes by Pup Level, said that pup play has accentuated the tendencies he had before he began practicing it. He said his puppy gear allows him to “be more who I am.” (The Times agreed to not use his last name to prevent professional consequences.)
“I was always nuzzling and whimpering like a puppy,” he said. “Sometimes words are hard to assemble in the right way to express emotions. If I’m feeling lonely or sad about something, and I’m cuddling next to my partner, I’ll give him a whimper and a nuzzle to engage him.”
Jason described himself as an “emotional support puppy.”
“My dog was there for me when I was depressed as a child, so I guess I’m trying to project that back into the world,” he said.
Puppy play isn’t new, but it is newly popular.
“Pup play has exploded in the past few years. We can’t keep up with demand,” said Rob Gammel, an inventory manager who has worked at Mr. S. Leather for seven years. The store sells fetish gear and sex toys in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, and it’s the commercial heart of the puppy play lifestyle. Every man I spoke to had purchased gear there.
“We used to stock only one or two hoods as part of a bigger mask section. Now we’ve expanded to 20 different colors and materials. We’ve even re-formatted part of the store to focus on it,” Mr. Gammel said. The expanded section is called Mr. S. Kennel.
Mr. Gammel believes the barrier to entry of pup play is lower than that of other kinks, making it more accessible to newcomers. Others echoed this sentiment. The fetish doesn’t require the same level of aggression as, say, rope bondage or a 24/7 master-slave relationship, though it can go there.
“It’s a playful kink. It’s not so dark, not so brooding, not so dungeony — where people are tied up and being whipped,” said Amp Somers, a 29-year-old designer for Mr. S. who goes by Pup Amp. Mr. Somers was the first runner-up for the Leather Heart Award (that’s puppy Miss Congeniality) in the Mr. SF Leather competition the first weekend in March. He also produces a YouTube series on kink education and said his videos on puppy play are consistently his most viewed.
San Francisco has long been a home for sexual subcultures. The Folsom Street Fair, an annual outdoor festival in the city focused on B.D.S.M., now teems with pups, where once there were few. The fair is the Coachella of kink — the fetish community’s biggest event, the place to see and be seen flogging someone who’s begging for more.
Patrick Finger, executive director of the fair’s parent organization, said that puppy play has become the fastest-growing subgenre of B.D.S.M. in the past five years, though he remembers seeing pups at the fair for at least 10 years. He attributes the fetish’s success to the internet.
“The world has become so much smaller due to technology, which has made a huge difference in kink being accessible online,” Mr. Finger said. “And something eye-catching like a guy wearing a puppy hood is going to get attention both in photos and in person.”
Pups are the cousins of some other dogs you might meet as you walk down the street. Furries, who dress up in mascot-esque animal suits, also venture out in packs. Their aesthetic is more “Lady and the Tramp” than “50 Shades of Grey,” though, and multiple pups said there was little overlap between the two communities.
Pups both leather and fur once found a home on Tumblr, but in the wake of the social network’s ban on sexual content, they’ve migrated to Instagram and Twitter. Their conversations take place under hashtags like #pupplay, #humanpup and #gaypup, and their user names draw from their pup identities. People like Mekelé, a Washington, D.C., resident who goes by Wonkey, indulge their desire for public puppy displays on Instagram. Wonkey poses at the beach, naked save for his hood, or in Times Square. He said he bought the mask just six months ago and describes his alter ego as “wild and crazy and random” in opposition to his “anxiety-ridden” everyday self. (The Times agreed to not use his last name.)
“Pup play has morphed into my own therapy session. It’s me surrendering to the mind-set of who Wonkey is,” he said. “The pup community is the best community I’ve come across. If you see a new pup, you’ll definitely say hi and probably bark.”
When sexual fetishists form communities around their shared pastimes, their bedroom interests often manifest in nonsexual settings. Pup play is no exception.
Scott Friesen, 37, asked to be identified as “Gunner,” his pup name, for more than four years at his job at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation — except, of course, in legal contracts. And for a time he asked co-workers and friends to refer to him by the pronoun “pup.” He belongs to a pack called the Pedal Pups that’s raising money for H.I.V. research through the AIDS/LifeCycle fund-raiser.
A handler or an alpha can act as sexual partner and/or life coach to his pup. Mr. Hammack, known as Pup Turbo, is one of two alphas of the Fog City Pack, a four-year-old group of nine pups in San Francisco who together run an event business.
“Our pup identities are integrated into our everyday identities. They’re natural extensions of ourselves,” he said. “The alpha/beta dynamic extends beyond the sexual and romantic dynamics. It’s a mentoring concept. Our alphas are 10 or so years older than the other pups.”
Mr. Hammack identified himself as a beagle. His puppy hood matches the breed’s coloration.
“A beagle is a family dog, very protective. It’s got a very good sense of smell, and I’m very much a scent hound. It’s medium-sized, which I am, and has a deeper bark and growl, which I do,” he said.
In addition to personal identity and group affiliation, pup play also presents a financial opportunity: The pup community will pay to play, and leather purveyors are happy to oblige. A leather puppy hood from Mr. S. Leather in one of four staid color combinations — black and gray, black and tan, black and brown, or all black — costs $320, but a custom version with wilder options like crimson and electric blue is $350. A neoprene hood costs $140 in any of 16 standard colors — camouflage, lime and aqua among them — or $170 if you want a personalized colorway. Mekelé estimated he’s spent more than $2,000 on kink gear.
The Fog City Pack and bars throughout San Francisco throw puppy play events, charging for admission. On the first Saturday of the month, there is the SF Eagle afternoon pup-oriented event called Woof. In the evening, the bar becomes home to a party called Frolic, which, according to its Facebook page, is for “puppies, bunnies and furries!”
Puppy play has even found its way into the most traditional expressions of love. One married couple in San Francisco, Pup Twitch and Pup Trigger, wore dog collars to show their commitment to one another before their wedding. Twitch, whose given first name is Will, tattooed a dog bone on the inner side of his right bicep. Within it he inked the geographic coordinates of City Hall, the couple’s wedding venue. They still wear their collars, in part to identify themselves to others as pups — a symbol of commitment more visible than a ring, and more specific.