There is a lot that has been happening within the pup and handler community, a lot that really reflects on just how much it has grown in just a relatively short time. A number of recent discussions, some in which I was involved and others I merely observed readily prove that. Questions are being asked and answered, ideas discussed and traded. Arguments, constructive and otherwise, are happening as passion meets conflicting ideas and the drive to further assert identity is further fueled. At times it can seem almost too much at once to take in, even for those of us within – and can be downright confusing to those on the outside looking in.

However, no growth process is without its trials and pangs. From the moment of birth through eventual maturity, there is an endless series of bumps and falls, trials and tribulations, bruises and healing. In this regard, the pup and handler community is no different from any other that’s come before us. From the earliest days of leather down to contemporary fetish and kink, all have endured the same overall growth and the challenges that went with it. Name any one group within the broader leather/kink/fetish community, then look at the history. It’s there.

In thinking about this and in equating the growth process as a continuum beginning with its birth, I think it’s fair to say the pup and handler community has entered its adolescence. I will, of course, expound further on this. First, however, let me make a couple of points clear. Firstly, none of what follows should be construed to judge, implicitly or explicitly, that any particular thing we do is either right or wrong. Those discussions and disagreements are part of where we are in our growth, and this is in no way intended to either validate or vilify the beliefs and practices within the community. Secondly, I do have more than a passing background in psychology, with emphasis on developmental psychology. As such, I applied practical ideas and concepts to my thinking. Lastly, combining the first two, I don’t purport or believe myself to be any kind of expert on the overall pup and handler community. It is much too wide and varied, regionally and worldwide, for any to make such a claim. I’m just one pup sharing his ideas.

So, why would I say the contemporary pup and handler community has reached its adolescence? For starters, I use the qualifier “contemporary” to keep this focused on its emergence within the broader leather/kink/fetish community. Pups and pup play have been around for decades, even centuries. The pup and handler community as we know it today, however, only goes back a few years, about a decade or so (the first International Puppy was in 2001). That’s where you see the beginnings of what we have today in terms of clubs and organizations, networks and families built around pup-centric norms. So we’re still the new kids on the block when looked at as part of the cross-section of the broader community.

Like all others before us, we had our infancy. We grew from something that came before us, in this case the leather/kink/fetish community. In some ways, one could make the case that they are the “parent” figure in this model. We had to learn our way in a world that was already there, akin to learning to walk (two steps and then a dead run). We bumped into things along the way, sometimes fell because we didn’t know any better. We had those that were there and willing to help trying to guide us (some of whom we call packbrothers and sisters but were also part of what was already there). We had to endure a lot of “Oh, aren’t they cute” as we went. The tail pulls…how much they seemed at the beginning like the stranger or relative we see rarely making annoying goo-goo faces.

We had our childhood years. For a good span, the focus was mainly on pup play and having fun. Cute gave way to sometimes being watched with smiles and encouraging laughter, sometimes with disapproving glares. We got upbraided by our “parent” for certain misbehaviors, and sometimes we even got petulant in our response. We were sure we could ride that bike without training wheels for the first time, then wonder what the hell happened when we fell. But others were there to help us dust ourselves off and get back on that thing so we could keep going (and then we put cards in the spokes even though some thought it annoying). Still, for the most part, we were glad that the broader community “parent” was there – we still weren’t quite ready to make our part of the world our own just yet. We hated the rules sometimes, even told the “parent” that we hated them or thought they were stupid. But we weren’t really challenging them yet.

Now we are. Now more than ever we are at that place where we’re working, sometimes even struggling, to define and assert our own identity. Now we’re at the place where we are taking things that were in the world we’ve come into and trying to adapt them to fit our emerging world-view. Now we’re looking at the concepts and traditions that have come before and deciding where they fit into our emerging sense of self – if they even fit at all. We don’t want to ride the bike alone. We want the keys to the fucking car so we can go out and have a good time.

And now we’re at that place where we are absolutely convinced that the “parent” can’t possibly understand what we’re going through. We’re convinced that all they want to do is rein us in and ruin our lives. We don’t want to be treated like little kids because we aren’t kids any more. We’re adults now, damn it, and we’re going to prove it! At times, it does go to the extreme of outright rebellion against the rules and limits the “parent” has set out – in this case those traditions and norms associated with the leather/fetish/kink community. We don’t want limits; we want to explore and discover for ourselves! We don’t want to sit at the kids’ table at holiday dinners (think events). We’re grown up now and want to be with the adults. Dammit, we ARE adults, right? They can’t tell us how to run our lives, right?

Like most adolescents, we want to be independent of the “parent.” We want to be free to live our own life and do our own thing. We don’t want to be looked down on as petulant adolescents; we want to be accepted and treated as equals.

And, you know what? This is actually completely normal. There’s not a single thing wrong with any of this or feeling like we do. It’s all part of the growth and maturing process. It can’t be argued that the contemporary pup and handler community has come a long way. We’ve grown in size. We’re beginning to define and establish a self-identity as a community. We’re challenging ideas and boundaries as we begin to assert that identity.

Before I go any further, I just want to point out that I say “we” because I’m part of it, one among many, and I’ve done a lot of things that this describes myself. It’s only been in looking back that I got a new understanding out of all of it.

In going with this reasoning, let’s also take a look at it from the “parent” point of view. How can they understand us if they don’t feel like we do? The thing we forget is that they have felt and do feel like we do. They’ve been where we are. Some may have forgotten that, but it’s nearly universally true. There isn’t a single one of us who came into the community knowing everything about it. Individuals and groups alike, we were all new to this community once. Everything we’re enduring, others endured before us. The learning and the exploring, the self-discovery and identifying, the rules and the limits and what they meant at the individual level. Every section of the broader community that came before us faced these same trials and growing pains – and all have emerged with a strong sense of self identity and a firm idea of their place within the whole (which is not to say they are without current challenges and difficulties – many remain).

No one likes being made to feel they’re being looked down on. It’s an uncomfortable feeling at best. If it continues too long, it breeds anger and resentment. Very rarely does it leave an opening for truly constructive conversation. The paradox of equal footing, however, is that it has to be earned but the process of earning it slows itself and gets bogged down by frustration. It can become a self-defeating cycle if unchecked.

Fortunately, we have it within ourselves to check it. It takes only three things: respect (both for oneself and for others), two-way communication, and an open mind. These aren’t merely suggestions or goals, they’re imperatives. All three of these are absolutely necessary to get through this period of growth and change and reach that point where differences are more widely respected than refuted. When communicating, it’s not just about what we have to say. It’s about listening to what others are saying and being open-minded enough to maturely discuss the differences. It’s not just defending a point of view, but accepting that there is room for many times many points of view.

And lastly, of course, if we keep with the idea that while we, as a community, may very well be in our adolescence, those of us in it are adults. That’s where we can run into the problems that arise among us and between us and the broader community. While it’s perfectly normal for an adolescent to endure and feel all those things I described, as adults we can’t expect to continually act out along those lines and not be called on it. Whether we like it or not, we are adults in an adult world that has expectations and established norms for acceptable behavior. Being adults, we’re expected to – and should – act like adults.

We, the pup and handler community, want very much to be seen for who and what we are, not defined by what others believe we are. The number and intensity of ongoing discussions and activities shows that. We can and will achieve that, but we have to remember also that – even as we are building things unique to us, we’ve also adopted a number of practices and symbols that were there before us and are working to adapt them to our world-view. That won’t happen without disagreement and misunderstanding. That we’re doing this in an age of social media, an arena that’s far more transparent than any before us, it all stands out even more. Those looking in see more, and in doing so, may understand less. However, it’s really on us to help them understand what we’re building. It’s on us to explain those things that are unique to us and to show that we do respect the value of those traditions we’re adapting. To show that we’re not discarding or disrespecting them but are finding a way to make them important to us. We can be the mature entity we’re struggling to convince others that we are. We don’t have to shove aside those who came before us. We have to show we’re determined to take our place beside them.

That’s the transition from adolescence to adulthood. It takes all us to achieve that. And it doesn’t change the fact that the world isn’t a fully friendly place, that there are just as many challenges before us as there are behind us. But at least we don’t have to face them alone.

Is it an easy transition? Not even close. Is it frustrating? Sometimes beyond words. There are times we’ve all felt like we’re beating our heads against a wall. The question I’m posing here though: Do we keep running into a screen door with our eyes closed and then blaming others for the bloody nose, or do we talk to the people on the other side of the screen and eventually open the door?