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From the Archive: Woof! Pups and Handlers

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the June 2022 edition of Outlife757 Magazine.

Within Queer culture, there is a vibrant subculture known as Puppy Play. No, it is not a group of Queer people who show canines, and it is definitely not about having sex with animals.

In its purest form, Puppy (or P) Play is a constantly evolving fetish where people have an interest in roleplay as canines and their associated handlers. Someone who is a “Puppy” is the person taking on a role with a canine personality. Someone who is a “Handler” (or “Sir”, “Madam”, “Mister”) is the person taking on a role to be the human counterpart in a modern animal pet-human role.

Some are more doting over pups, some like crowds of pups, some like to train pups with canine-like agility skills, and some like to curl up on the couch and cuddle with their own pup. The relationship can be sexual, social, or platonic, and there are assorted gear and tools available to express those relationships if you want to utilize them.

In Hampton Roads, there is a thriving community of Pups and Handlers. The Southeast Virginia Pups and Handlers is a group of about 35 participants from all segments of the community: gay, trans, non-binary, and ethnicities.

Treasurer Sunny Haynes and her husband and President Michael are not only the leaders of the group, but members as well.

“I’m more like the den mother to everybody,” said Sunny, “and Michael is like the den daddy.”

“It’s a power exchange with costumes more than anything,” said Sunny. “It’s basically a very loose and fun form. There are no rules except respect.”

The relationship between Handler and Pup is based on negotiation, and Sunny and Michael insist that members of the group spend some time getting to know a potential partner before entering into a P Play relationship.

Sunny and Michael serve as guides for that journey.

“Mike and I will spend a month, sometimes two months, just getting to know a person before we ever talk about a dynamic,” Sunny said. “We try to teach that the first three months should just be getting to know each other. After that three-month period, if both parties are comfortable and have laid out rules that both agree to follow, then they progress to the next level which is a training call to check in and see
how well that’s going.”

That is standard operating procedure for couples. But participants can also be a Puppy
without a Handler (a Stray, or Omega), and participants could be a Handler as well a Puppy.

“We use the same hierarchy as dog packs do,” said Sunny. “You have your alphas, which are the dogs that are basically in charge of everything. And then you have your betas and they’re usually the followers. They don’t like to be in charge of anything.”

P Play has been around for a long time, not just in the queer community, but in the heteronormative world.

Historical records show that it first appeared in Europe in the 17th century then gaining popularity with the invention of the internet in the 1990s.

“We actually found videos on YouTube from the 70’s that proved it was very popular then with Leather Women groups,” said Sunny. “It kind of spilled over into the Leatherman groups, and it still comes out of leather, but we use neoprene now because that shit is
hot.”

This rich history does not, however, preclude discrimination and ignorance, often from within the Queer community.

“We have had some complications with local government regarding the boys wearing their hoods in public,” Sunny said, referring to a Virginia law that forbids the wearing of masks in public.

“When COVID came along, the boys could get away with it,” she recalls. “People actually thought it was cute and adorable and didn’t find anything wrong with it. But at Pride, they still absolutely refuse to allow it. Even as our guys were escorting the drag Queens onto
the stage, they refused to let them wear their hoods,” she said.

Sunny and Michael believe that it is part of an effort to keep the kink groups out of Pride,
recalling at one point that they were threatened with felony charges.

“It’s like they forget where they came from,” Sunny said. “And I’m sorry, heteronormative is not where Pride came from. It was a riot by the leather, drag, and
trans communities.”

Regardless of perception, the SVA-PAH group continues to grow and is now the largest in terms of active membership in its history. The group has grown to include not only pups, but all sorts of other animal expressions: cats, a zebra, and a lion.

“One time, we had an alligator that showed up,” said Sunny with a chuckle.

“That just goes to show you that the P Play community is very inclusive,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what shape, size, gender, sexuality, or color you are as long as you’re in the proper mind space and come to have fun and be safe. Anyone is welcome.”

SVA-PEH can be found on Facebook.

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