As soon as I entered the nightclub venue last month, one of my first sights was a ball pit and safety mats.
Then, I saw a guy dressed up as a puppy wearing a Christmas jumper walking up to me. He gave a friendly hello before he bent down to be level with my wheelchair, gave me a hug and a belly rub.
Dopamine was running rampant, and I felt so relieved. I felt calm and confident. But I wasn’t always this way.
Confidence has never been something that’s come easy to me. I have osteogenesis imperfecta, meaning that my bones are not formed in the same way as most. My ribs are barrel-shaped, my arms are bent back on themselves and my legs are incapable of holding my body weight, so I have to use my wheelchair to get around everywhere.
Because of my disability, I’ve often felt like I don’t fit in anywhere.
Then when I came out as gay in 2014 at the age of 24, things didn’t get any better. While I was accepted by a local social group – which helped me to socialise with a handful of people – bigger groups in bars and pubs were still intimidating.
I also felt discouraged from using dating apps like Grindr as most of the guys on them blocked me without a reply. One even said that my disability would make me a ‘burden’ for any future boyfriend. It was crushing, and I went even further into my shell.
Three years after coming out, I attended my first Pride after hearing how enjoyable it had been for people in the local social group. I thought that it would be fun to go to one myself.
While there, I passed by the puppy play area. I saw a guy wearing a pup mask, a leather harness, no shirt, leather underwear and a rubber tail sticking out of the rear.
At that point, my only knowledge that human pups existed was an advert for a Channel 4 documentary on the subject called Secret Life of the Human Pups in 2016. It showed off the strangest aspects of being a human pup, and it put me off watching it completely.
Seeing this pup at Pride was my first real-life experience with the community, and truth be told, the sight of people wearing different-coloured masks and acting like dogs freaked me out completely. I was too scared to even talk to one to properly gauge who they were as the people under the masks.
Instead, I went to find some friends to try and calm myself down a bit. I was already on edge, as I didn’t cope well with large gatherings at the time. But seeing the pups made me feel even more uneasy as they were such an unknown entity to me.
In hindsight, this kneejerk reaction was a huge mistake on my part. I feel guilty and regretful for acting this way.
I didn’t think much more about pups until 2019, when my friend and I went on holiday. He surprised me by revealing that he had packed a pup mask for the trip.
It was a shock to hear my friend mention it so openly to me. But seeing someone I knew and trusted with a pup mask made it seem less intimidating than seeing someone I didn’t know with one. ‘What about trying to be a pup myself?’ I thought.
But I didn’t act at the time as I wasn’t completely convinced it’d be something for me, and I was hesitant to spend money on something that I might abandon soon after.
I eventually did a little more research and found out that the puppy play community is a group of people who dress like dogs and take on a different persona with a different name. Some treat it as a sexual kink, while others care more for the roleplay aspect.
In the first half of 2021, everything came to a head.
I’d had a few negative experiences with the wider gay community since 2015 – dates not showing up, that horrible ‘burden’ comment. Being ignored by the wider community on social media and Grindr left me feeling isolated.
So, I decided to try doing what I couldn’t back in 2017 at Pride: talk to some pups. I was hoping that talking to them would make me feel, within myself, that I belonged somewhere.
I decided to follow a few pups on Twitter and Instagram to start. It was the decision that would change my life. They were willing to talk about anything; they were supportive when I felt a bit low, and I started to feel comfortable.
This, I decided, was the time to find my own puppy mask – no matter what it cost.
After a few delivery obstacles, I finally received my first mask on 7 December. I was nervous, but I was excited. I put the mask on… and everything immediately felt right.
It was like I’d found the missing piece of the puzzle that was my life. I was the happiest I’d felt since I came out as gay.
I took a photo of myself 10 minutes after I put the mask on. I was a bit nervous about sharing it so publicly – I thought I’d be mocked for it by friends, as they had no idea up until that point.
However, as soon as I posted a picture of it on Instagram – and it became one of my most-liked posts – I knew that I’d made the right decision.
Less than two weeks later, I attended my first ever Doghouse pup meet-up. Doghouse is a small community-led group that organises pup events for Stoke-on-Trent, where I live.
During that first meetup mentioned earlier – after the initial rush from the hug and belly rub wore off – I became a bit shy. I was still unable to start conversations, but I joined in with other conversations fine.
At no point did I hide in a corner though, like I usually would in new social situations. I wanted to participate; I wanted to learn more about pup mannerisms and I didn’t feel out of place.
I’m still learning how to bark and pant. But I learned that holding closed fists up to your chest or chin makes you look cuter to other pups. And I learned that getting on all fours would be impossible for me as I can’t hold up my own body weight.
These meetups allow people to be pups in a safe environment. Some prefer to just chat and get to know other pups like them. During that first event, there was a game where three pups would be mummified in toilet paper by three other pups, and those who didn’t take part helped to judge which pup was best covered.
Towards the end, two pups came over to me. We had a chat, a hug and we followed each other on Twitter – I may meet up with one in London for my birthday in April. I came away from the event feeling proud that I went and, most of all, feeling like I belonged.
Since then, my confidence has grown and grown. I’ve only been to one Doghouse pup meet so far, as they only take place on the third Saturday of every month – but I’ll definitely go on a regular basis.
I also arranged to meet with someone I’d spoken to there, and we ended up sleeping together.
Before then, I’d only had one hookup through Grindr and it didn’t feel right for me. It only lasted around 20 minutes and there wasn’t much passion there. I prefer connecting with someone before trying anything intimate.
But with another pup this time, I felt so comfortable. It helped that we’d been speaking on Instagram, so there were no awkward conversations. He was so helpful in getting me undressed, as well as gentle and patient around my disability. I felt much happier and more fulfilled.
I’ve planned to do the same in another hotel with two different pups soon – none of which I’d imagined I’d do before now. I’m also hoping to go to pup meetups further afield in Manchester and London, once I feel comfortable with my local Doghouse meet.
For me, puppy play has allowed me to be the person I’ve always wanted to be. The mask and my new name, Wheely, allows me to build my own character from the ground up rather than let it be dictated by my environment. It provides me with a bit of control in a life that’s restricted by my disability.
Besides that, I’ve been more comfortable starting conversations with pups online and to people generally. For example, when I went for my Covid booster on 28 December (without the mask), I was laughing and joking with the nurses and staff at the vaccination centre, rather than just answering the questions like I did when I went for my other two doses.
For those who are struggling to push beyond their comfort zone, I’d say: if you have something that you’re nervous to try, just do it. Maybe not now, but when you feel comfortable.
If it doesn’t work out, you may lose a bit of time and money. But if it does, you could gain the happiness and confidence you never knew you lacked.
Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing James.Besanvalle@metro.co.uk.
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