Pup Play: Finding freedom in a dog mask

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Nat Werth at the South Boston Green Space (Credit: Nat Werth)
Nat Werth at the South Boston Green Space (Credit: Nat Werth)

“Which one of you freaks hijacked the south Boston green space google maps for your furry photo shoot?”

Earlier this year, a Redditor was trying to find the person who uploaded pictures of himself posing in a dog mask and rubber suit to this location in Google Maps.

But he's no furry. He's a pup. There's a difference, we learned, after speaking to the subject of these photos.

Take a walk on the kinky side in this episode that explores the origins of puppy play and how the internet and the pandemic shaped the pup community.

Show notes: 

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.

Acela Pup Legend: It puts me in this carefree mode of, okay, I'm a dog. I'm just going to be, you know, relaxed and, you know, do what makes me happy. So that's why I decided to go out and, you know, just be myself. I'm not causing harm to anyone. I'm not causing any civil disturbances. I'm just a person in a dog mask


Ben: Amory, how deep do you go on Google location photos and reviews?

Amory: Pffffft, clearly not deep enough, Ben, wherever you’re going with this.

Ben: Well, I love doing this. And I think I realized that a few years ago when I went to Portugal. Because I was in this beach town– Lagos. And I went to this amazing beach. And I took photos. And for some reason I got prompted to like upload my google photos. I guess maybe because I’m an Android user.

Amory: I know your kind. [Laughs]

Ben: Yeah “Your kind,” exactly. Apple would find a way to pretend it was better than everyone else. Anyway, I upload these photos and they end up getting hundreds of thousands of views, because this beach is amazing and lots of people go to it. And Google is telling me how popular and amazing I am…

Amory: Okay, Google. Brings new meaning to that.

Ben: No! It literally messages me and says, and I’m quoting here "You’re Popular!"

Amory: Uh huh.

Ben: So. Ever since that trip to Portugal I pay a little more attention to Google location photos. And also the reviews on those photos, Amory. Because I just think it’s an interesting idea. And I’m not the only one, because a few months back on the r/Boston subreddit, there was a post of some google photos. With a funny title, which I shared with you.

Amory: Quote “Which one of you freaks hijacked the south Boston green space google maps for your furry photo shoot?”

Amory: And there’s this guy who is wearing what looks like a rubber suit, with a mask that makes him look like a dog. And he’s got a handkerchief on. And a collar. And he’s standing in broad daylight on a pier in what's known as the South Boston Green Space, which is part of the waterfront in South Boston — this area with piers and fancy offices in old warehouses.

Ben: And there are several photos like this. Mask on, mask off. He’s grinning. Not just at this spot, either. Also there’s photos of him, if you look on his profile, in a hotel in Palm Springs. It’s variations on a theme.

And of course this post blew up on the subreddit. And people were making all of these jokes and, you know, eventually the magic moment we all hope for as Redditors happens because the person featured in the post shows up in the comments.

Amory: So, we asked him to meet up with us and chat. You can guess where.

Ben: Palm Springs, baby!

Amory: We wish. I’m Amory Sivertson.

Ben: I’m Ben Brock Johnson and you’re listening to Endless Thread.

Amory: We’re coming to you from WBUR, the Palms Springs of Boston, if you will. The NPR Station. Today’s episode?

Ben: Woof

Amory: Pup Play.

Ben: How's it going? 

Amory: Good. How are you?

Ben: Nice to see you.

Amory: Nice to see you.

Ben: You're ready to go on a little road trip?

Amory: Yeah.

Ben: All right. 

Amory: Were you sitting in this seat last, or was Sarah?

Ben: I don't know.

Amory: Someone's riding dirty. 

Ben: Sitting very reclined? 

Ben: We’re riding dirty to the scene of the photobomb. To talk to the subject of the photo.

Ben: All right. So, Nat.

Amory: Nat?

Ben: Nat Werth.

Amory: Nat Werth. Which is his real name.

Ben: Yeah.

Amory: Nathaniel?

Ben: Nathanael Werth.

Amory: Or Nathan?

Ben: Nat Werth. Great name. Just graduated from Northeastern. And he’s like a Google Photos super user. He’s doing this all the time. But a lot of people don’t know that this is a thing. Top comment on that Reddit thread?

Amory: Shuffle Buzz says — on Reddit — says you can upload any photo to any Google Maps location. Do what you will with that information.

Amory: Where is he from?

Ben: I forget the name. It's one of the states that starts with an I.

Amory: There’s not that many. Illinois, Iowa, Indiana.

Ben: Idaho.

Amory: Idaho. All right. That's one more.

Ben: It’s one of those.

Ben: But We show up to meet Nat at the South Boston Green Space and we are already learning things.

Nat Werth: I am from Sheboygan, Wisconsin

Amory: Nat Werth, from a "W" not an "I" state,  has chosen to meet us in what is maybe the loudest damn location in South Boston on this day.

Ben: Trucks.

Amory: Planes, ships.

Ben: Large vehicles backing up. Planes, ships. Trains. But that’s okay. We’re in a place

Amory: We’re in a place

Amory: And the seagulls! Nat is not alone. He is with a friend who will only identify himself in our show as Sterling.

Sterling: My name is Sterling and I’m originally from southern New Hampshire and I now live in Dorchester, Massachusetts. And sometimes I like acting like a dog and dressing up in neoprene and just having a good ol’ time.


Amory: For some reason, Sterling does not want to give a full name while talking about his kinks on a podcast.

Ben: Maybe because unlike Nat who just graduated, Sterling has a job where his most obvious sign of interest in this particular kink could be a dog tag he likes to wear around his neck.

Sterling: There was actually a woman I work with at work. Um, she  noticed I was wearing this one day, and she's looking at me, you know, giving me, like, a look at. I'm, like, looking back at her, and she's like ‘Why are you wearing that?

Amory: So what did you say? Did that begin a conversation about this? 

Sterling: Yeah.

Amory: Okay. 

Sterling: It actually started a conversation where she when she asked me about it, I told her, you know, I was a I was a pup and that this was like a quasi collar for me, which got me into learning that she is actually a trans woman and that she had just transitioned actually, and that the reason why she knew is because she has been in this world before as a man.

Ben: Ok wait we should probably back up a minute. Pups. Kinks. Furries. Glossary needed. And we should start by admitting that Amory and I are — what this community might call — vanilla.

Amory: Speak for yourself I’m strawberry, baby.

Ben: Fair and I’m raspberry. But you know what we mean. This world is a little new for us. Maybe. At least as far as we’ll admit at work, in our podcast.

Amory: OK so Kinkster, for instance, is like  a person who is into different kinks, says Nat.

Nat: Coming from a 22 year old kink is more of like an activity and fetish is more like an object.

Ben: Helpful.

Amory: So how do you differentiate between a puppy and a furry?

Nat: Sure. Yeah. Good question. I don't know.

Sterling: Puppies - - Puppies generally have either. . .

Nat: Puppies can be furries and furries can be puppies to start.

Amory: Furries have full body suits and yes, if you listen to our podcast, you probably use the internet so you do not need me to explain what a furry is necessarily. But let’s just say anthropomorphic animal characters based off of comic books and sometimes this furry fandom gets a little sessy.

Ben: Where as pups, who can also get a little sessy, generally wear a neoprene so-called hood that is effectively a pretty fancy dog mask.

Sterling: My particular hood is black, navy blue, white and gray. And, you know, putting it on is pretty simple. It's a fairly stretchy product. So you just kind of pop it on your forehead first and then, you know, pull it down the back of your head. You never pull on the eyes, though. That's where it rips. So there we go.

Ben: Nice!

Ben: Pups can be into lots of different things. Like motocross–you know the thing where the dirt bikes go off the jumps and, you know, people wear the gear from the motocross stuff. Or…

Nat: Like a puppy can be a furry, can be into latex, a pup can be into leather or none of those things. Like it's really up to each individual person what they want to try and how they want to present themself.

Sterling: There's a puppy that has actually been working very hard to try and explain this in ways. Support Pup Cooper on Instagram.

Nat: Yeah, give support for Cooper follow.

Support Pup Cooper:  Support Pup Cooper here. Let's go for a walk. Today, I'm thinking about vulnerability and how for some of us, our puppy headspace helps us connect with parts of ourselves we don't connect with otherwise.


Amory: This, Sterling told us, is exactly why he puts on his puppy hood.

Sterling: It's a moment where you can kind of let go and just be free, in a way. you're not so constrained by, you know, worrying about what other people think. Not worrying about what you think other people are going to think, which is, you know, we walk around, we always are thinking that.

Ben: It's actually pretty deep to think about the idea of letting go of a constant need to be thinking about what other people are thinking about you. That's a really, that's a constant thing that is maybe going on in the background, right? For all of us.

Sterling: When I put the pup on I was actually recently I was in a bar and I put it on. I just started dancing. I didn't care what was going on.

Amory: In case you didn’t pick up on this already, pup play is often specifically people dressing up as dogs and acting like dogs. Barking. Rolling around together. Wearing leashes. And maybe some more explicit stuff too, which we’ll let you use your imagination for.

Ben: So, how did Sterling and Nat get into this in the first place?

Nat: I started exploring like Kink and pup play in 2020 — right as the pandemic started--when I got out of my first of first romantic relationship.

Ben: Nat says something about pups just resonated with him.

Nat: I think I started by like looking in the mirror and just like, practicing barking just to see what it felt like. Maybe I liked it.

Amory: For Sterling? Same kind of deal.

Sterling: For me, it was some time in 2020. I have a friend who I talked to in Belgium and he actually posts a picture on Instagram with his new pup hood. And I don't know why, I just found it like, the cutest thing ever. And in I think February 2021, maybe March, I actually did order my first hood. And when I finally actually received it,  it was like April 2021. Two years ago today. Funny enough. Actually, I think it's tomorrow. Today's the 13th, right? Yes. Okay, so it's tomorrow. Two years, two years. 

Amory: Happy Birthday, almost!

Amory: OK Let’s hear from another pup. Who also happens to be a pup expert A Pupspert?

Professor Philip Hammack: I'm Philip Hammack, professor of psychology and director of the Sexual and Gender Diversity Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Cruz. also known as Alpha pup Turbo, one of two Alphas and the founder of the Fog City pack in San Francisco.

Ben: Professor Hammack says yes, the pup scene has been growing over the last few years.

Professor Hammack: One of the things that happened during the pandemic, of course, is that people's social lives, you know, they were sort of dabblers in social media before the pandemic, they really, a lot of people really leaned in and that's the only space they had. So I think the the COVID era — the lockdown era in particular-- provided people with a unique opportunity to go online and really do some exploration, especially if you go to places like Instagram and Twitter, I mean, there's just an explosion of profiles of people affiliated with the pup subculture.

Amory: It’s a little hard to identify though, because the growth feels pretty new.

Professor Hammack: But numbers-wise, I mean, I don't think people really start to quantify the community until maybe the last few years. So it's kind of impossible to document, you know, with with hard numbers, but clearly a rise in visibility.

Ben: All that said, Nat backs that rise in visibility up.

Ben: I was wondering about this, because both of your kind of pup origin story-- stories started to happen around the same time. So I was wondering if you feel like this is like a community that's growing or if it's what it is or or.

Nat: Definitely growing and definitely exploded over the past couple of years.


Amory: Nat and Sterling say that in the real life meetups that they show up to, pup play really does skew younger. And they think the growth in puppy play is a sign of the fact that older kink communities that have been around for longer were much harder to find your people for and coalesce around.

Sterling: which meant you had to go to a certain bar or a club or a private event. In this case, it's splashed all over the Internet. And so, you know, you can do one Google search with “pup hood” sometimes and you can come up with pictures of Nat and myself in public parks.

Amory: Nat has done this in a bunch of places now. Boston, Palm Springs and Chicago. He’s trying to get the expert photographer badge on Google Maps. It's a hobby. But it’s also about normalizing pup play.

Ben: And here was an interesting discovery: You know what? Nat and Sterling and others are not the first to photobomb public locations with pup hoods. They’re not even the first to do it and get attention for it in Boston. We’ll be back in two wags of a puppy tail.

[Sponsor Break]

Ben: Nat and Sterling, our two pups at this very loud pier in Boston, got briefly and slightly reddit famous for their Google Maps photos in 2023. But Acela Pup Legend? He was pup-posing in 2017!

Acela Pup Legend: For the past five years I’ve never really let go of my pup side. It just grew.

Amory: But he didn’t really mean to pup photobomb. He was just hanging on a public bus. Wearing his pup hood. OK he was more than hanging. Acela Pup Legend, an adopted name that is also called a pupsona, is a huge public transit fanatic. Hence Acela, like the train. So he was pup-pumped to be riding on the new bus line, was maybe gonna take some selfies for his Twitter page.

Ben: Also pup-pumped? The general manager of Boston’s public transit system at the time, the T, and some members of the press who were interviewing the general manager.

Acela Pup Legend: And then the next thing I knew was somebody messaging me on Twitter asking, Hey, is this you? And I looked at and I looked at the link that my friend sent me and I'm like, okay, the MBTA posted something on their Twitter and there was the GM and hey! that is me in the background. And the next thing I knew, I was looking at the comments and some of the retweets and it was just blowing up across the puppy community online and the furry community at the same time.


Ben: Acela Pup Legend says he had discovered pup play around 2017, when a friend who had a fetish for motor sport gear and motorcycle leathers showed him a puppy hood from a place in San Francisco called Mr. S Leather.

Acela Pup Legend: And I made more connections. I travel more to connect with pups across America and even in Europe. Recently I just came back from a trip to Berlin where they were having a big leather fetish event there called Easter Berlin.

Amory: Acela Pup says the scene in Boston is big and inclusive. He says there’s a big group chat on the messaging app Telegram, where pups have been connecting since 2013. But also that the kink has evolved a lot over the years.

Acela Pup Legend: Originally, puppy play was more of a it was more of a dominant and submissive type of role play where one would take on as like the submissive person in the in the scene, kind of like the play session. And then one would be like the Dom or the or the dog handler. And then recently it's kind of slowly evolved from a, um, from kind of a humiliation fetish to now more of a more of like a self-identity, a way to, you know, escape from the usual routine world of, you know, working and and sleeping and eating to, you know, just being a carefree dog, living in the moment.

Ben: Acela Pup, Sterling, and Nat say that while local promoters in Boston’s vibrant scene are definitely creating spaces where pups can and sometimes do do more than roll around, there’s also just a lot of social hanging out.

Nat: It's a great  place to meet people. Just say hi. Like it might be intimidating at first to like, say hi to someone that you might be interested in and interested in. Or you can just be like, Hey! I like your catsuit. Or is that rubber or I like your pup hood. 

Amory: If you are hearing this and saying "I would never" or "What’s the big deal?" sure. But the pup play kinksters we’re hearing from don’t take these gatherings and these spaces for granted. For Nat, Boston’s scene was a respite after high school in Wisconsin.

Nat: Yeah. When I was graduating high school, I was valedictorian of my class. It's traditional for, like, the valedictorian to give a speech at graduation at my religious high school. And in the draft for my speech that I submitted to the administration, I talked about being gay and they did not like that. They're like, 'you can't give a speech.' I was like, 'but I would love to like, I'll still edit the speech out to your standards.' They were like, 'No, we can't trust you to give a speech at graduation.' So I didn't.

Ben: What Nat did do was go to The Sheboygan Press and the local paper’s article turned into a local TV news spot. Eventually, it blew up far enough that Nat got to go to New York City and meet J.Lo.

Nat: I was lucky in a sense, to have been what one to like have made it out and with minimal emotional damage. But there are like trans kids who are being expelled from their schools just because they aren't being allowed to use their bathroom, the correct bathroom. And schools are even writing into their into their policies that trans kids can't use their preferred pronouns. I don't know. It's just like really disgusting what happens.


Amory: Nat is from an evangelical Christian family, and while he’s radically open with his parents, they’re not always speaking plainly with each other about why, for instance, he’s in Chicago on a given weekend at the Mr. International Rubber kink event.

Ben: Sterling is not as far out about his pupsona.

Sterling: So, I can say that I have not told any of my family except for one of my cousins who is also gay. So a little safer with her.

Two pups snuggling on public transportation. Credit: Nat Werth's Google Photos
Two pups snuggling on public transportation. Credit: Nat Werth's Google Photos

Amory: Pups have had some spotty moments in Boston. Nat says he was spat on by a person riding the bus in the South End. Sterling talks about the challenges of organizing events at bars where people have complained even when pups are just simply hanging out socially, buying drinks and food.

Ben: Nat says when the Reddit thread about his photos on google maps blew up, people reported his google maps account. Which is like a whole extra set of steps from just seeing his stuff on Reddit.

Nat: So my photos got taken down for a while. I think it was like a month. And then I emailed Google and they're all back now.

Amory: Even though it’s incredibly freeing for these pups to fully take on this identity, it does feel scary at times.

Sterling: I mean, we're already under scrutiny. You know, and the fact that people tend to find anything we do offensive. But the pup community in particular, I mean, we're once one step removed from drag queens right now.

Amory: For now, kinkster Pups like Acela, Nat and Sterling seem to still feel safe to be themselves in public… posing in their hoods and their rubber suits and their dog collars, talking to podcasters in the middle of the day.

Ben: On a pier in Boston, while vanilla people ride by on bikes or take their dogs on a walk.

Sterling: The more free you are to express who you are, the more you're, the more --what is it?-- the more yourself you are.

[Dog running and panting towards interview while owner chases behind]

Sterling: Oh, hello, dog. We have a real dog.

[Dog playing with humans]

Dog Owner: I am so sorry.

Sterling: Don't worry about it.

Amory: That's okay.

Sterling: Aw.

Nat: Hi. 

Sterling: He actually looks like my dog.

Ben: This could not be a better end to this conversation. Actually, listen to this conversation.

Sterling: You have a real dog.

Amory: Well, Nat and Sterling, thank you so much.

Nat: Thank you.

Sterling: Thank you for having us.

Endless Thread hosts Ben Brock Johnson and Amory Sivertson with pups Nat Werth and Sterling at the the South Boston Green Space dry dock. (Credit: Ben Brock Johnson)
Endless Thread hosts Ben Brock Johnson and Amory Sivertson with pups Nat Werth and Sterling at the the South Boston Green Space dry dock. (Credit: Ben Brock Johnson)
Headshot of Ben Brock Johnson

Ben Brock Johnson Executive Producer, Podcasts
Ben Brock Johnson is the executive producer of podcasts at WBUR and co-host of the podcast Endless Thread.


Headshot of Amory Sivertson

Amory Sivertson Host and Senior Producer, Podcasts
Amory Sivertson is a senior producer for podcasts and the co-host of Endless Thread.



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