Teaching Young Dogs Old Tricks

Exploring the role of mentorship in the gay “pup play” community.

Members of the Fog City Pack at their retreat.
Members of the Fog City Pack at their retreat in 2018. Fog City Pack

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

When at their leisure, some queer people socialize and sweat it out at LGBTQ badminton games. Others enjoy hearing a reading at the local queer bookstore. And for still others, the best way to spend free time is rolling around on floor mats with each other while wearing puppy masks, collars, and tail-shaped butt plugs, barking and sniffing like real pups. Known as pup play, this is a brand of BDSM role-play where people imitate adolescent canine behavior in order to get off. When done with other pups, it’s considered a “mosh,” and it happens regularly at leather bars all across the country. For some, pup play is just for Saturday nights. But could the fetish lifestyle offer more than just a good time?

For the Fog City Pack in San Francisco, it does. Pup Turbo (human name: Phil Hammack) is one of the two alphas who lead the pack, which is a group of nine polyamorous pups. What makes them different is that they operate “on a mentorship philosophy and structure,” he explains. Mentorship in the LGBTQ world comes in all forms, whether it’s drag mothers teaching queens to contour and make it in the biz, or leather daddies showing their sub the ropes—literally. But these sorts of mentor relationships often extend to areas of life beyond craft and kink. As Turbo points out, a lot of queer people aren’t raised by queer people. They aren’t taught how to survive and thrive in the world as themselves when it comes to personal growth, relationships, or careers, since society is predominately straight and cis. Many benefit from turning to more experienced people to help show them the way. Although a BDSM puppy pack might seem an unlikely vehicle for mentorship, for the Fog City Pack, it works.

Turbo invited me to his pack’s “kennel” to talk mentorship in the queer pup scene. As I walked to their place, located on a busy street in the Castro, I imagined it would be a fully equipped kennel-like dungeon with slings, fuck benches, and a series of dog cages in a warehouse space. Instead, I arrived at a beautiful three-story Victorian Queen Anne home as charming as an Armistead Maupin book cover. (Only two members of the pack live there permanently, but it’s home base for them all.) I was also naïvely expecting to be greeted by the pack, outfitted in leather puppy masks, which are called “hoods” in the scene. But in reality, the guys who welcomed me were hoodless, in their street clothes. We didn’t sit on a series of floor mats, either, like you might see at pup night at your local Eagle kink bar, but instead gathered around their fashionable dining table.

Turbo handed me his three-page fetish family chart shortly after I arrived, which connected each member of the pack and extended family from 2015 to 2017. It offered a look into the evolution of the group, but it was difficult to make sense of it since there were so many connecting lines crisscrossing over each other. Turbo explained that their pack was the result of a network of polyamorous relationships that came together back in 2015. At that time, the pack and their extended family consisted of 22 people. Two years later, they had more than 50, although the core pack is made up of nine pups. There are the two alphas, Turbo and Pup Midnight, who are the leaders (similar to a drag mother in a drag house, Turbo tells me) and who fill in for the handler (a figure who, elsewhere in the scene, typically “owns” and protects his pups). Then there are two betas, Pups Fawks and Shadow, who are basically “vice-alphas,” stepping in when necessary; one omega pup, Pup Arco, a submissive who services the pack in exchange for protection from unwanted attention within the community; Bullet, who is their “big and strong” guard pup; and Jumper, Amp, and Astro, who don’t have specific roles within the pack hierarchy.

Only Turbo, Fawks, Jumper, and Arco were at the kennel the day I visited, although Dakota was there too. Dakota is a real dog or “biopup,” so technically there are 10 pups in the pack. (Though it’s worth noting that puppy play has nothing to do with zoophilia whatsoever. It’s just that pups can have real pets as well.)

Mentorship, I learned from the Fog City pups, plays a huge role in their family business, where the pack hierarchy comes into play. Fog City Pack produces popular fetish pup parties three times a year aptly named Alpha, Beta, and Omega. They have committees for different aspects of the events, and each of the pups brings a skill to the business, whether it’s copy editing, tech, music, or production design. The alphas have the final word on decisions being made, particularly in relation to the pack’s public image. Despite that, Turbo believes that the dynamic is in no way dictatorial, and it gives his pups a lot of autonomy. He is there for support, and the alphas want their pups to grow and shine.

“Hierarchy is helpful because I think it signifies the idea that some people maybe have more experience than others, and it’s not meant to be authoritarian at all,” Turbo tells me. “It’s just meant to, if anything, be nurturing and kind of like the idea that certain people just maybe have more experience.”

In some cases, if a pup doesn’t have a particular skill or wants to pick up something new, there’s the opportunity to do so. Fawks taught Jumper to DJ, for example, and Midnight taught Shadow production design and event coordination. Bullet taught Arco project-management skills, and Amp helps them all improve their résumés since he’s responsible for hiring in his day job working in tech.

I was curious about pack mobility: Could an omega graduate to a beta, or beta to an alpha?

“Within our own structure I don’t see a lot of movement,” says Jumper, “and I don’t think anyone is striving for that, but I think it’s more like that now that we’ve had the right role models. We could potentially become that somewhere else to someone else.”

Mentorship also plays a role during their annual retreats, which are family vacations more or less, except that they include some focused sessions, half of which are business related. The other half are for personal growth and development, which includes things like their growth as pups, relationships outside the pack, and career development.

It might seem strange to mix sex with this type of mentorship, but when it comes to a fringe fetish like pup play, one way to learn is through the guidance of someone else.

“People have just as much to learn about being sexual as they do about just being in the world, period, and so why would we not think that there might be opportunities to mentor when it comes to sexual behavior and sexual experience?” Turbo tells me. “To me, being sexual is the same as eating or learning how to study. You know, these are just fundamental parts of being human, I think, so I don’t separate that out. And I think, especially around sex and sexuality, there’s so little good education around it.

“Of course, you need mentors who acknowledge and respect the kind of power that’s involved in mentoring and to never abuse that power in any way,” he adds.

It’s interesting to note that they’re not really having that much sex anyway. Jumper explains that a common assumption is that they’re going at it all the time. Some of them have had sexual relationships with their pack members at one point or another, but that’s not necessarily the case anymore.

“Because puppy play and the kink scene is inherently sexual, that was what brought us all together, but I think that the relationship has to be more than that,” Jumper says. “And so it may have been what brought us all together, but the familial bond has kept us all. I don’t think if we all were still just fuck buddies that any of this would’ve happened.”

Fog City Pack and other families like it shouldn’t be confused with the recent, infamous case of the polyamorous muscle bears led by a so-called master who allegedly got one of his “pups” to inject his scrotum with silicone, leading to his death. That relationship was more akin to master-slave roleplay, and even then it was taken to the extreme. Generally speaking, pups are looking for belly rubs, not deadly body modifications.

And with Fog City Pack, if you strip away the pup-fetish part—and you’re sitting around a dining table with some of them in their street clothes—you see that they’re really no different than a close-knit group of gay guys who care a lot for and support one another. They’re just actively thinking about mentorship alongside the doggy piles. And because of that mix, they seem well on their way to creating a fetish-pup-party dynasty.