In 2014, Channel 4 aired a one-off documentary Secrets of the Living Dolls, exploring a burgeoning community of “female maskers”—men who find enjoyment in donning doll-like latex costumes. There are even conventions to unite maskers from around the world.
Now the U.K. channel is going to the dogs with its latest bizarre documentary, Secret Life of the Human Pups, which, as you might expect, follows a community of men who are not content with just owning a canine, but want to be one.
Man’s best friend is the most popular pet in the U.K. with animal charity the RSPCAcounting 8.5 million pet dogs across the country in 2015.
However, that figure doesn’t include the 10,000 people Brits who have taken cosplaying to a new level. According to Channel 4, these “grown men covet doggy treats, belly rubs and squeaky toys.”
The idea for Human Pups, which airs Wednesday at 10pm, came to director Guy Simmonds after he “stumbled across some pictures [of human dogs] on the internet,” he tellsNewsweek . “I’d never seen anything like that before. On the surface you’d think it was a few people dressing up as dogs behind closed doors. But the more we researched it, the more surprised I was to learn how large the community was in the U.K. They’ve got their own social networking sites, events and competitions.”
What motivates this hidden society to dress up as dogs? Simmonds says he came across a “broad church of people from all walks of life” who turned to “puppy play” for different reasons. “We’ve come across librarians, security guards, even CEOs of huge corporations who wanted to remain anonymous. There are gay, straight, transsexual, aesexual pups.”
In the documentary, one pup viewers meet is Chip, 42. “Life is getting more hectic nowadays, so much pressure on work and life,” he says. “Some people drink, there’s drugs… You’ve got to be civilized in our society. When you’re in puppy mode, all that goes away. We don’t care about money; we don’t care about what job you’ve got, or the bigger car.”
Puppy play as a form of escape from the pressures of everyday life is also true of Tom, a 32-year-old sound and lighting technician. He was named Mr. Puppy U.K. 2015—a Crufts-like competition that sees human pups show off their talents—as dalmatian Spot.
Tom has dressed as a human dog for 10 years and spent over £4,000 on custom-made costumes for his alter-ego. He even sleeps in a dog cage and, like a real dog, lives with a “handler”—a human who takes responsibility for the pet—named Colin.
“I do theater work, I hide in the dark, I do the sound and the lights,” says Tom. “I don’t want to be seen at work. I don’t want to be in the public eye. But in my pup life, I want to be the center of attention.”
For other people, role-playing as a human dog can be a means of distraction from medical conditions, including social anxiety, or deep-rooted childhood issues, such as bullying or the separation of parents.
“We filmed with some people that had been bullied in childhood and therefore had body confidence issues or struggled to meet new people as a result,” says Simmonds. “Because it’s a very accepting community, it’s a way for people to meet likeminded people. It’s not a judgmental community; it takes in everyone.”
London-based psychotherapist Wendy Bristow says it is not uncommon for those who have experienced childhood trauma, for example, to seek comfort in forms of escapism in later life. She points to cases of paraphilic infantilism, or “child’s play,” in which adults seek comfort by regressing back to being a baby. Both babies and pets are considered vulnerable and require nurturing, something role-players with troubled pasts may find soothing.
“The technical term is displacement. They’re doing an activity that gets them comfort, but they’re not expected to relate back apart from being grateful,” Bristow explained.
“I’ve not heard of this manifestation before, but people often try to get comfort in all manner of ways. This is a very specific form where, if they’re dressing up as dogs and being petted, it is interesting psychology: pets don’t communicate, they’re not expected to speak…on the whole animals don’t get judged for the way they behave [like humans]. They’re being played with, petted—these are all ways of being comforted.”
Puppy play is just one form of a larger phenomenon known as “pet play,” which is commonly associated with sexual acts like bondage, dominance and submission, and sadomasochism. However, pet play and BDSM are not mutually exclusive. Many subjects in the documentary, like Tom and his handler Colin, have a purely platonic relationship.
“It isn’t usually used for arousal purposes although some do use it that way,” explains one blog, A Submissive’s Initiative. “It usually is just used as a way to escape from regular life responsibilities. If you are a cute, snuggly kitty, you don’t have to pay the bills or clean the sink–you can just relax and focus on being a little mindless pet.”
“It can seem sexual initially,” says Simmonds. “There is an element of that—[puppy play] was born out of the BDSM [and] kink scene in the 1980s. There is a movement now where it’s escapist, roleplaying, and almost a lark…for them it’s about being more primal and escaping the stresses of a more hectic world. Putting a mask on and becoming someone else, it appeals to some people. And it’s a welcoming, accepting community.”