The large dog sizes me up, one black ear flopping as he cocks his head. He sniffs my hand a few times, then bends down to sniff my shoe. Apparently satisfied, he turns around and plops himself down on my feet, nearly knocking me over as he settles comfortably on his side.
This particular dog is actually a man wearing a leather hood and puppy paws. His name is Argo and he’s the canine alter ego of well-known Toronto leatherman Paul Ciantar, whom I interviewed a few days later in full human mode.
“I’d say four out of five people buy into the idea that Argo is a real dog,” Ciantar observes. “They pet Argo, they let Argo jump on them, they play with Argo. If someone walked up to them and started licking their face, they probably wouldn’t like it much. But they see this guy with a dog’s head and paws acting like a dog, they want to pet him and play with him and have fun.”
Ciantar is a fan of dog role-play, or puppy play as it’s known to enthusiasts. In recent years puppy play has grown in popularity within the leather scene, with major international events such as the American Puppy and Trainer title contest and WoofCamp, an event that takes place in Chicago during the International Mr Leather weekend each May. Toronto’s first-ever puppy gathering, Fetch, took place at this summer’s Church Street Fetish Fair.
So why would a grown man or woman be drawn to take on the role of a dog?
Sir Dart, Argo’s handler, offers his take. “I just got into puppy play about two years ago. I’d heard of it, seen it and had no interest in it whatsoever. All the pups I had seen seemed like out-of-control, hyperactive men and women strung out on sugar, rolling around and humping your leg. I thought it was obnoxious.”
But when he saw his first pup — “a muscular, masculine man” — asking for someone to put him into a puppy state of mind, everything changed. “There’s the appeal of the role-play and of stepping into a certain identity, whether as pup or handler, so the domination and submission. But there’s also the appeal of the playful aspect. A master and slave, or a sir and boy, have strict protocol and discipline, but puppy play is very free-flowing and in the moment.”
It’s not that hard to understand the simple joy of being, or being around, a dog. When Dart plays with Argo, his eyes light up and a grin spreads over his face. Belly rubs, squeaky toys and ear scritches ensue — odd in the dungeon setting where I met them, but friends and bystanders alike played along with great enthusiasm.
“I don’t really understand why it is that it makes him so happy,” says Ciantar. “But through Argo, Dart and I bond in a way we don’t as people.”
“Something that I liked about puppy play from the beginning is the unconditional nature of it,” says Miss M, a local leatherdyke and puppy handler. “As the handler of a dog or a dog owner, the caretaking and the unconditional love is a great way to give a lot of affection and care.”
Local puppy Fang, aka Jessie Raymont, describes puppy play in simple terms. “I’m on my hands and knees. I bark, I follow [my trainer] around and play fetch. She feeds me from a doggy dish and she cuddles up to me, scratches my neck and rubs my belly. When she does that I give a whimper and hang my tongue out and pant and lick her. We’ve also done the shaking-my-paw routine.”
The realistic details of the role-play help maximize its escapist benefits. “When I put the hood on all I have to think about is dog things,” says Ciantar. “It’s very stress-relieving. I’m not thinking about my taxes or my laundry. I can just exist in the moment.”
The escapism factor is not reserved for the puppies; sometimes the handlers enjoy puppy play for the relaxation it provides too. “A lot of the scenes… I do are role-play where I take on a specific persona. Or they’re technical scenes where I’m whipping or using rope,” says Miss M. “With puppy play I don’t have to do much. It’s nice for me, I get my slippers brought to me and she’s the one doing a lot of the role-play.”
Affection, relaxation… it all sounds so innocent. But does the sexual element of the leather scene translate to puppy play?
“I have no intention of having sex with Argo,” says Dart in no uncertain terms. “But there is a charge. It’s not sexual arousal, but there is a power exchange and a charge that comes from the connection.”
Ciantar agrees. “It is kinda sexy in that it’s taking things to a more primal level, but the whole thing with Dart is not sexual at all. There is no sex to it. I mean, who fucks the dog?”
It’s not so simple for some others. “Tail wagging gets me aroused,” says Raymont. “I do get off sexually, playing, in a small way. It’s more like a form of foreplay. It gets me riled up, it’s a freeing way of expression.”
Bryan Thurston, who goes by the name Porkchop while in puppy mode, also points to the complexity of the arousal question. “It really depends on my connection with my handler. In some instances it is erotic and in some it’s not,” he says. “Some guys find it too close to bestiality when they combine sex with their puppy play. But it surprisingly depends on the kind of gear you’re using. I have a puppy-tail butt plug. It’s very hard for me to not find things sexual if I’ve got a big dildo in my ass.”
Miss M says she enjoys the opportunity to explore new forms of dominance through the puppy training process.
“A few years ago I was looking to adopt a pit bull at the pound and the SPCA [Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] people gave me a three-page document about dominance training in dogs. It actually taught me a lot about humans. It’s an interesting form of DS [dominance/submission] because of the resistance that the ‘untamed’ dog can provide and the way the dominant exerts their dominance.”
But not every dog wants to be trained. “I’m not a really submissive person. But then, my own dogs were anything but submissive,” says Ciantar. “Dart will tell you Argo is a handful.”
He adds, “I’m naturally a protective person and having a 200-pound dog between you and whatever’s threatening you must feel like a safe place to be.”
I can almost hear the friendly growl when Thurston says, “Argo wants everyone to be afraid of him. Porkchop is not afraid of him.”
Dart is working hard to make puppy play a staple of the Toronto leather community, with plans in the works for a regular puppy event at the Black Eagle and a workshop scheduled during the Mr Leather Toronto weekend. While he certainly plans to cover training techniques (rolled-up newspaper, anyone?), appropriate gear and various other technical details, the focus will be on the enjoyment of play.
“The bottom line is that it’s downright fun, plain and simple,” he says. “It’s fun to be us. We wouldn’t be doing it for any other reason.”