3: Pups are Organizing (11/01/13)
Most pups and handlers that I’ve met this year have strong, distinctive personalities. Both are diverse in their approaches to sexuality, gender, behavior, and socialization. In fact, many gravitate towards pup play as a way of unleashing long-dormant or stifled parts of one’s character, or “pup-sonality”. Yet, in the past few years, pups have come together in increasingly formal organizations, locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. As the first IPC International Puppy, I received my title in November of 2013 with my organization’s stated goals of expanding across North America, into Europe, and beyond.
Building an organization, in which a mutually shared interest must supersede individual agendas, requires a mitigation of personalities in favor of negotiation and collaboration, establishing a visible community. Through social media, pups and handlers have recently come together in ways never before explored. From bar nights and smaller leather festivals to IML, individuals are not only identifying themselves as pups and/or handlers, but also by pack membership, elective offices, and titles, all indicative of a current, broader desire to “give back” to the puppy community.
With that in mind, I asked leaders around the country to participate in a qualitative survey, the purpose of which is to identify major issues prevalent to pup-and-handler organizing during this time of dramatic growth in the human puppy world. The groups sampled, while not scientific, do represent a cross-section of current pup groups in the United States and Canada, having originated between 2004 and 2013 with current membership ranging from 7-100. The groups range from individually owned or founder-run social clubs, or “packs”, to educational and community organizations with elected boards and non-profit status. Those surveyed, all founding members, were invited to participate based on their perceived leadership and presence in the larger community, judged by factors including: online presence (group websites, or participation in online social fora), attendance at leather and kink events, involvement in organizations or competitions, and earned titles. Return rate on the survey questionnaire was 67%, a strong response rate for any survey.
“Do we need a new pack in my area?”
Pups and handlers are coming out in quickly increasing numbers. Online social media, including Facebook and FetLife, and podcasts such as “NoSafeWord,” are making it possible for sexual minority communities to form bonds across states, regions, and increasingly, the world. Those who were previously isolated due to geographic location, a desire for anonymity, or shyness, are now functioning, if not leading, parts of the puppy world. The reach of Minneapolis’s new “North Star Kennel Club” extending beyond city boundaries is a prime example. Founder, Pup Dakota, describes, “We have a large amount of pups/handlers in the area, many have little or no resources and there was no place to play in real time or virtually.”
Puppies are typically, though not universally, more submissive. They often pair with a dominant partner, (usually referred to as a handler, owner, or trainer) and establish a unique relationship that blurs the boundaries of typical Master/slave dynamics, much like the relationship of a real, or “bio”, dog to its family. Still, there is plenty of traditional leather, even “old-guard,” spirit in much of the pup community. In that vein, the simplest way to form a new pack may be for a “Sir” or an “Alpha” (leader) pup to gather a group of friendly faces and declare a new “pack.” Such is the case with Cleveland’s “Pups Against Animal Cruelty” (PAAC), founded by current Mr. Cleveland Leather, Sir Ben Feathers. As he states it, Sir Ben “…wanted a place for pups to be themselves and able to play…in a friendly environment.” The Mid-Atlantic Kennel Korps (MAKK), headed by founding member Pup Tripp, also has more traditional origins as an outgrowth of the DC Boys of Leather.
More broadly, the first step in founding any new organization is finding a core group, usually 4-8 members, that: 1.) Believe strongly in the cause, 2.) Are committed to attending events, and 3.) Share tasks. Papa Woof Roth, founder of the St. Louis Puppy Patrol, Producer of Midwest Puppy, and Co-Producer of IPC International Puppy, puts it simply: “My pup and I wanted to have others to hang out with.” Whether that core group remains a social club or expands into a more diverse organization depends on the group’s dynamics and vision and the character of the local community. Pup Figaro, current Northwest Puppy and founder of Vancouver Pups and Handlers (VAN-PAH), had to search for his core membership, having recently moved to the area from San Francisco. He recalls, “It took a bit of digging over several years to find a core group of pups to start doing social things. Then we graduated to having monthly moshes. We are getting bigger every mosh.” VAN-PAH now reports 40 members. In Minneapolis, Pup Dakota used Facebook to create a private “North Star Kennel Club Leadership Group” to engage his core team and supporters before the group had even officially launched.
Every group seems to rely on a regular, public (or “bar”) night for visibility, fundraising, and to bolster numbers. Therefore, a community relationship with likeminded individuals and local business owners is still essential. While online media may introduce potential pups and handlers to a larger community, personal connections are ultimately needed to sustain one’s identity. Pup Tuck, founding member of the venerable San Francisco (SF) K9 Unit, the oldest and largest of pup groups, recalls Pup Spunky’s search for camaraderie in 2004:
“…It seemed that the only place he could find [pups] was on a very few social websites. As much fun as those sites were, Spunky wanted to create something more intimate—a pack bonded by brotherhood. As a result, he met with men who lived in the San Francisco Bay Area to see if there might be an interest in creating a local social group. Rowdy Pup was one of the first who responded and together they created the SF K9 Unit.”
By creating a new bar night, accompanied by the distinctly visible antics of pups and puppy play, pups and handlers have the power to transform and enliven the ailing leather bar scene. Pup Vidhra, founding member of Cincinnati’s “Ruff Pups CNKY,” relies on a regular bar night to keep the group active and visible. He recalls, “I founded Ruff Pups because I was new to the puppy world and wanted to meet more pups when I moved back to Cincinnati. Since then we've become a catalyst to help bring the local leather community back out to the bars." The same could be said of the Calgary Kinky Kennel Club (CKKC), headed by Pup Berith (not surveyed here), which I recently did an appearance and demo for. Both groups, using their bar night as a foundation on which to build, are now discussing expansion into the areas of leadership (through a Board of Directors), education, fundraising, and other event planning.
“Are we a club or an organization?”
The larger groups (reporting 40+ members currently) are all engaged in an ongoing process of assessing the need for an organizational structure that benefits the particular membership of the pack. These needs include whether to have officers, a board, non-profit status, and annual elections. The smaller groups (reporting 10 or fewer members) function more like social clubs and are often led by a founding member, having been so for a number of years. Since most pup groups around the country are only a few years old and many are growing in dynamic ways, there exists the recurring question of how to openly reflect member interests while accomplishing goals quickly and easily. When membership is limited to a handful of pups and handlers, a founding member may offer the passion and dedication to keep the group active. Likewise, limited membership may reflect limited organizational talent. Organizing is difficult, often thankless, and requires specific abilities. Having a founder as leader may provide comfort and consistency from year to year. Papa Woof Roth, states “It’s advantageous [for a group] to be led by someone [who has] organizational and planning skills, [and is] also able to mediate and make an unbiased decision, if needed.”
When, though, is an individual personality or founding group not enough to engage a growing, diverse membership? Pup Dakota suggested a goal-driven narrative that seemed to be common to many groups: “I think that to start out, it's best to be led by a leader or small group of leaders…perhaps someday if the goals and reach of the club go beyond 4-6 moshes [per] year and occasional social events, we will explore a more formal governance structure and take on our own financial matters.” North Star allows anyone to become a member informally by joining the Facebook page or attending an event. The option exists of becoming a supporting member for a one-time $20 fee and includes a membership pin. Given that the group only began a few months ago and is now reporting 75 members, North Star has demonstrated an effective strategy for attracting broad interest early on, a significant challenge for any pup group.
Limited governance allows groups an ease of organization, limited meetings, and the ability to act quickly to respond to member interests; however, when a group reaches a critical mass, it may be impossible for one owner or small founding group to adequately address the diversity of needs and sustain the activities required. Pup Gadget, founder of Seattle’s SEA-PAH, perhaps the most formally organized group in this survey, reflects, “As it grew and became larger, we needed to delegate various tasks to various people and thus we decided to form a board of directors.” SEA-PAH is a larger group with 60 members paying dues of $25 per year. Among most of the groups, large or small, there is a common stated goal of remaining dynamic to address changing member needs and interests. Pup Tuck reinforces the need for dynamic leadership in assessing, “New members are coming in all the time who might not be aware of the history of the pack and it's important to take their comfort level into account.”
“Do we want to file as a 501(c)(3)?”
Perhaps the ultimate goal in terms of financial organization is the establishment of “non-profit” status. The Mid-Atlantic Kennel Corps is somewhat of an outlier in this survey, reporting a smaller membership (8) but with elected officers and 501(c)(3) status. Founding member Pup Tripp comments, “Having designated officers allows for streamlining of necessary business so as to keep the focus on the social and educational aspects. Non-profit status allows us a checking account and the ability to offer our fundraisers as a tax deduction to contributors.” The process, while not difficult, can be burdensome in terms of time and cost. Pup Gadget describes the process SEA-PAH is currently engaged in:
“First you file with the state, then with all local municipalities, then with the federal government. Getting the Articles of Incorporation is step one. Developing bylaws that will provide a basic outline of the organization that can be understood by…government agencies is important…Developing a handbook to work from to govern day-to-day operations is also important…There are many different types of non-profit statuses that can be applied for…Each has their own unique advantages and disadvantages. Going for a 501(c)(3) can be advantageous if your primary goal is fundraising and education. A 501(c)(7) may be more advantageous for a group that wants to remain a social organization.”
Whether to commit the substantial resources required to obtain non-profit status depends on the expressed goals of each organization. As Pup Figaro remarks, “It will depend on the group’s feelings…I think it may be wise once the group gets a little more established for mutual protection and so that we can do more work for and with other local organizations.” As puppy groups, most in their infancy still (less than two years old), continue to grow, formal questions such as whether to file for non-profit status will become increasingly present. Through increased communication between groups, these processes may be eased, enabling more to participate in benefits, such as tax-deductible donations.
What should our group do?
Once a group is established, the question looms: “How do we sustain and develop this energy?” Among those surveyed, the top responses to having a successful pup group were: strong communication and listening, participation and growth, community, and education. Mentioned rarely were: organization, energy, events, and fun. This can be interpreted not to mean that the topics mentioned least are of the least importance; but, rather, that these topics are already being adequately addressed. The topics foremost on leaders’ minds are likely those that are key challenges, those for which there may not be simple answers and dynamic, creative thinking are required. It is clear that all groups surveyed are clearly organized, have regular events, and attract a membership that is interested in having fun. How can these expected elements be more thoroughly explored through dynamic membership, inclusivity, fellowship, and education?
Firstly, as Pup Figaro suggests, it is a good idea for the pup group to orient itself “…where the pups are.” Through online profiles, joint events with other leather and kink groups, venues and activities that are inclusive, and events other than moshes and bar nights, such as competitions and social gatherings, a broad membership can be reached successfully. There is also a virtual consensus that, while finding the right amount of organizational structure for one’s particular group may be a challenge, it is well worth the discussion. Too much organization can become draining with excessive meetings and bureaucratic procedures; however, having one person or a small, unchanging group in charge, while convenient, does not allow for enough delegation or collective ownership to be healthy over time. As with their leather counterparts, puppy organizations must foster both open communication between leaders and membership while instilling a sense of fellowship, encouragement, and acceptance between all individuals. Because of the intensely personal nature of the journey to puppyhood and puppy handling, and the public nature of these organizations, the latter may be even more important. Finally, while a number of the groups cited gender and sexual orientation as points of inclusivity, none mentioned age, race, body type, physical ability, educational background, or socio-economic status as potentially inclusive categories when planning events, selecting venues, or assessing cost. Given the highly physical nature of pup play and the broad cross-section of demographics in the kink world, group leaders may be able to expand diversity and membership by considering inclusivity along more dimensions.
With two international title organizations now active, International Pups and Handlers (IPAH), and International Puppy Competition (IPC), puppy titleholders, local, regional, and beyond are beginning to appear. By the end of the year, I, for example, will have appeared with all of these groups in one form or another. Titleholders are charged with representing the puppy community in a positive manner. Visibility is an obvious benefit from inviting a titleholder to demonstrate, fundraise, or speak on puppy play. Photos and puppy awareness were cited as benefits. The rapid growth of the community demands increased travel and support for titleholders, both financially and otherwise. As in the leather communities, titleholders are often expected to “fund themselves” with limited support from their organizations. Further, when deciding on events to appear at, titleholders would be well advised to consider the areas of need on organizers’ minds, namely: education, participation, and inclusiveness. Rather than simply appearing at a typical event for play and recreation, titleholders can make a difference in these areas by the quality of information and demonstrations they prepare and by the individual bonds they are able to make with local group members. Organizations, contest judges, and community leaders should be aware of the acute needs that titleholders can address and promote these representatives accordingly.
What challenges will our group likely face?
Each pup group listed distinct challenges reflective of membership, geography, local culture, and available venues; however; virtually all of the groups mentioned a significant challenge as being “participation.” This was listed both as a problem of participants attending events, but also of volunteers’ willingness to work at events. The problem was also reported across smaller and larger groups. Pup Tuck actually reported the seeming paradox that, while SF K9 Unit is perhaps growing “too large,” so does it have a problem “getting volunteers.” Here, it is apparent the importance of camaraderie and fellowship among group members. It is likely that as SF K9 Unit has grown, some have felt, falsely, that “others” will volunteer to take on events; a shroud of anonymity has set in and the group may suffer from malaise. SF K9 Unit is discussing solutions to combat this problem, including: expansion of activities throughout the year, increasing presence of the group at leather events, establishing a volunteer scholarship, and attempting a first-ever conference on puppy play. MAKK is following a similar strategy of increased activities and member inclusiveness to address participation, including hosting next year’s first Mid-Atlantic Puppy Contest (IPC), defining membership benefits, and engaging newer members to take a leadership role in event planning. IPC itself has established a traveling “Good Puppy Award” to recognize individuals that show puppy spirit through behavior, volunteerism, and dedication to their community at events around the country.
The winner of the first IPC "Bill (Trooper) Boyd Best in Show Award," Pup Gadget, reports that SEA-PAH is also concerned with a lack of appropriate space in Seattle, particularly in welcoming communities, such as traditionally gay Capitol Hill. He reports, “SEA-PAH has been partnering with local businesses and organizations in the Capitol Hill community to find suitable mosh spaces for…growing membership…With the membership base expanding, we are finding it a little easier to get more members to participate in events. That, coupled with putting on events suggested by our members seems to have been impacting our ‘staffing’ needs at events.” Space requirements pose a difficult challenge for puppy play. Rooms must be large and well ventilated with plenty of water and even EMT’s on hand for potential accidents.
MAKK’s Pup Tripp offers yet another challenge: what if the local leather bar is closing, temporarily or permanently? The call must be put out to members, friends, and supporters, to find alternative venues, including private homes. Portland’s Oregon Puppy (not surveyed here) recently had a successful first-time event at “HawksPDX,” a spacious, well maintained, gear and kink-friendly sex club downtown.
Only one group, North Star Kennel Club, reported that closeted members pose a challenge. Pup Dakota believes that the club’s “two-tiered” membership structure (discussed above) provides members the ability to participate at their own comfort levels, while also placing closeted pups in close proximity with more established pups who may serve as role models. The prevalence of closeted identities is difficult to assess in terms of numbers, but may be an area of challenge underrepresented in this survey. All pups surveyed here are well-known leaders in their communities, and yet, even here, some remain “closeted” at work due to fear of repercussions. Depending on their group’s stated mission, leaders may want to discuss further how they might encourage, comfort, and educate those who are closeted, younger, or less experienced.
Aren’t we really doing more here than just “playing?”
By organizing, we posit that our lives will be more fulfilled, more meaningful, and more fun if we join together in play, celebration, and common cause, than if we remain isolated. Those who organize are willing to put some of their personal agenda aside in the hopes that puppy play will connect in deeper ways when visible as a collective entity. When puppy play is realized as a kink, we go one step further, boldly (and perhaps, subversively) suggesting that sexuality, if not the sex act itself, is ultimately more gratifying when shared, physically animated, at some level, with others. As kinksters, pups demonstrate that sexuality is, foremost, a matter of the mind and of finding shared meaning in behavior. In sum, pups and handlers are joining together to bring forth radical truths into stark, public visibility! It is no wonder that so many have relied on puppy organizations, classes, demonstrations, and mentors for support and guidance during their own, often dramatic, personal journeys into puppyhood. The organization of pups and handlers is a delicate balancing act that must reflect the particular needs and diversity of each community while realizing that any group is only as strong as is its membership. Groups can only achieve sustainability when a diverse, dynamic membership is willing to continually endorse and promote its stated goals.
Thank you to Papa Woof Roth, Pup Dakota, Pup Gadget, Pup Figaro, Pup Tuck, Pup Vidhra and Sir Ben Feathers for their participation in this project. Where applicable, you will find links to their respective organizations on the menu bar at the right.