Pet play does two opposite things at once. On the one hand, we often say that a hood doesn’t hide who we are; it reveals who we really are. But on the other hand, we also often say we feel safer in our hoods because they provide a degree of distance or protection, socially speaking. Both those points are incredibly relevant to this conversation. I 100% believe that pet play lets us show who we really are, without pretense and without typical (aka human) social constraints. And most of what I’m going to share today is all about ways to more honestly, clearly, and effectively express who we are and how we feel. Basically, if this class works, and if we all leave here with more effective communication skills, we will prove the saying right by demonstrating just how well our hoods help us show who we really are.

The second point, that we feel safer in our hoods because of the layer of protection, is trickier. It’s still 100% true, and it’s still a point to embrace. When you leave this room today, I want you to always remember that your hood can provide that social protection. At the same time, I want you to remember why it protects you: You feel less seen, less visible, and less exposed. That means others are less able to see us when we have our hoods on, and we have a social obligation to help overcome that handicap. What’s called for here is a little acting. We each have our roles to play.

I want to introduce three things we should all keep in mind while in our hoods. They might seem obvious at first, but I’ll show a few examples of each that demonstrate how easy it is to forget the effect they have on our ability to communicate. It’s good there are only three things, since dogs can’t distinguish numbers above five. We should be safe here. When in our hoods, we need to remember these three things, in order of importance: our personas, our expressions, and our physicality.

Communication Through Personas

Let’s start with our personas. This type of communication is the vaguest of the three, making it a bit of a challenge to introduce. You might think of it as something like a reputation, or maybe like an aura we all project as we go through life. We are all, to a certain extent, consistent in our behaviors. That consistency helps people get to know us, understand us, and—eventually—rely on us. And the best part of this idea is this: If we behave genuinely, people will start to rely on us to just be ourselves, meaning we can live up to expectations just by being us. Sounds great, right? It’s one attractive aspect of pet play: genuinely reacting to life in the moment. The trick here is to help people get to know our personas—to help them see the real us.

Each of us presents a certain way. We have characteristic interests—things that perk up our ears (or for those with certain plumbing, things that perk up your bones). We have routine reactions to things. Those routines are predictable, making us seem familiar to others. People can rely on us to respond in a certain way, or they might seek us out because they know how we would think about a subject. For instance, folks who know me know how I react to squeakers. They also know how I react to squirrels—and how it’s different from my reaction to squeakers. An explanation here will help demonstrate what I mean.

My Thoughts on Squirrels

Whereas squirrels are cute and fun (and distracting as hell), I only pretend to hate them. My bark here is bigger than my bite—literally. I say squirrels make a great crunchy snack, but I would never actually attack one. Do I bark at them when I’m out for a run? Sure. But that’s the extent of it.

So when a certain International Handler *cough*Chris*cough* poses with the critters crawling all over him (and hands them out to every pup he meets), he smirks his evil smirk, knowing he’s pushing my buttons. In effect, he and I have learned to communicate through props. We use squirrels as a way to exchange affection, saying “I see you” in ways that make us laugh. I’ve had a few mutual friends reach out, clutching their pearls, when they ask whether I’ve seen Chris’s collection. They expect Chris and me to be frenemies, and we pretend to be all the time. It works great.

If you’re at all familiar with the Leather/kink community in north Florida, you might know Master Daddy Kali. They say they care for bio-squirrels and nurse them back to health. I say they are fattening up the little buggers to make a hearty, tasty snack. It’s at the point now where our mutual friends will think of both of us any time one of us mentions a real squirrel. Again: Our consistent (and absurd!) banter encourages situational communication without us even being in the room. Our personas are strong enough that they live in our friends’ minds, rent-free.

My Thoughts on Squeakers

For another example, let’s talk about squeakers. My friends know I dislike squeakers and will avoid them. I don’t try to kill them or eat them or chase them; I try to get away from them, removing myself from their presence. They just annoy me. And I have teacher ears, so the sound of a squeaker cuts across a room and gets my attention whether I like it or not. Because my reaction is strong, consistent, and complex, kind people are considerate and avoid squeaking things when I’m around. Or if they do use a squeaker, they tend to immediately look apologetic…or guilty and evil.

But again, the point is that they know how I’ll react even if I’m not around. My communication about squeakers is consistent and generally well-known in my social circles. I don’t introduce myself as The Pup Who Hates Squeakers, but if you spend enough time around me at these events, it comes up. And it’s an unusual reaction among human pups, so it makes me more distinctive. My personality stands out a bit.

Avoidance is a weird behavior to use as an example in a class about effective communication. But think about it: My quirky personality and playful distaste for something helps people understand what I’m thinking or feeling and how I’ll react to situations. In effect, I’m animated inside their heads. That’s the benefit of a clearly defined pupsona: To create a consistent set of behaviors, mannerisms, reactions, etc. such that people who know you can predict how you’re likely to act in a given situation. Those consistent behaviors, mannerisms, and reactions can make us seem endearing or even just weird, but they’re an expressed identity, which is important for communication. Put another way, they create an effective communication of performance.

Community (Un)Inspiration

The idea for this class came to me when I was at IML last year. I walked through the lobby—and if you’ve been to IML, you know that walking through that lobby is an event. I saw humans filling the room, laughing and smiling and chatting and hugging and flirting and peacocking and strutting and gesturing and engaging. They were active and bustling and obviously having a great time.

Then I saw a bunch of puppies standing against a wall. They looked like props. I swear, you could have replaced them with cardboard cutouts of themselves, and they would have contributed as much to the vibe of the room. They made no movements, no sounds, no expressions. They were just…there. I even saw people talking to them. Their reaction? Quick, small nods. Then back to cardboard cutouts. Sometimes they’d raise their drink to their muzzles, but they’d just sip from the straw and return their arm to their side. There was no emotion, no movement, no communication.

To be clear: Taking a break from crowds or becoming a wallflower for a bit is a great strategy to help cope with crowds and moderate overstimulation. We all need a breather from time to time, and taking a time-out to observe the room is a great way to check in on yourself and your surroundings. But there’s a difference between zoning out as a temporary coping strategy and zoning out as a persistent default state. Think about it: When was the last time you saw a bio-puppy standing still and expressionless?

An Improbable Contrast

Just to drive home this point, I’m going to be unfair and unkind for just a minute. I have seen statues that express more vitality than a human pup standing motionless against a wall. This sculpture is Bikkja i Bakken (in English, the Bitch on the Hill). It’s a tribute to a delightful recurring event at Oslo’s Holmenkollen ski jump. As the story goes, at every major skiing event, when crowds gathered along the sides of the slope, some random canine—a different one each time—would get loose during a break and have the time of its life, running free through the hill to the applause and delight of the gathered humans. This sculpture pays tribute to those lively pups. And you can see the joy and energy in that sculpture. (Seriously, the Norwegians know how to make great statues. My gosh. But I digress.)

Photo of a dark metal (likely bronze) statue of a dog mid-stride in a playful run. This static artwork demonstrates communication by implying movement where none exists.
Photo by Pup Aechus

Perhaps this metallic statue works so well, ironically, because of its sense of movement. That unmoving leash is obviously flapping in the breeze, trailing behind a speedy pup. That tongue is clearly flopping, lolling to the side to add a layer of derp. It almost looks like that tail is so excited that it’s pointing the wrong way. And the paws make it obvious this good dog is not strolling casually. There is energy in this statue. But to my point from above: This works because of its sense of movement. Next time you lean against a wall for a bit of a break—we all do it, and it’s occasionally necessary, so no judgement. But next time you lean against a wall for a bit of a break, check whether you’re a cardboard cutout or an energetic statue. Do you look alive, or like a plaster architectural column?

The Spectrum of Emotional Communication

While I’m being direct, let me lean into it and just be blunt. The worst-kept secret in the pet-play community is the prevalence of the autism spectrum among our kind. On the one hand, interacting with others using the physical, innocent, in-the-moment, innocent, honest, and innocent norms of canine communication can be easier than navigating the social complexities of typical human behaviors. On the other hand, covering faces with hoods reduces the amount of information available for effective communication. If someone struggles to express and/or interpret facial expressions, using less of that can quickly compound the problem, offering less to draw from where more might help.

For instance, it’s a common misconception that folks with autism emote less with their faces. Research has shown that folks with autism typically show more emotional reactions on their faces, but those reactions are more fleeting and thus frequently missed or misunderstood in social environments. Put an opaque hood on those faces, and things get even more challenging. The fleeting reactions are even harder to catch because they’re behind neoprene. Folks on the spectrum face extra challenges when it comes to self-expression and emotional processing. When wearing a hood, we all need to be more aware of, and intentional about, our expressions. We need to express our emotions—and read others’ emotions—through something other than our faces. That’s the only way to avoid what I saw at IML—and the only way to actually look like a bio-pup.

Putting Prosody on “Paws”

At the risk of going too far on a tangent, I want to emphasize the implications of that research I mentioned above. Folks on the spectrum often demonstrate an interesting linguistic affect: Their prosody is unusual. Prosody is the rhythm, pattern, and inflection of language. Think of it as all the stuff verbal language adds that written language lacks. Each culture has its own prosody norms. Think here of valley girls, Jersey gangsters, or southern belles. Each category has distinctive pattern and sound to the way they use language. Folks on the spectrum frequently struggle with mimicking the expected prosody within a group. Fortunately, that’s a non-issue for pet players. When we’re in headspace, we don’t rely on verbal communication, and prosody issues no longer get in the way. That’s a relief, but it comes at a cost: Expression while in headspace must come physically if verbally isn’t an option.

Therefore, pet players need to think about how gesture, posture, and movement combine to show what we’re thinking or feeling. Consider these challenges: How do you (or a bio-version of your animal self) show you’re sad? or happy? or confused? How about showing confidence, pride, enthusiasm, frustration, anger, or desire? Thinking ahead of time through what these feelings bodily look like can help bring them to mind more easily in the moment when you need to show how you feel while you’re in your hood.

Walking the Walk

In the description for this class, I promised examples from Disney, so here comes the first one. Imagine if Mickey Mouse walked in the room right now. Picture in your head what Mickey would look like. How does he move his head when he walks? How bouncy are his feet and knees? What does Mickey do with his hands when he walks? Same questions, but now think about Jafar. How does his head move? How bouncy is he? What about his feet, knees, and hands? No aspect of Jafar’s walk aligns with Mickey’s walk. You can imagine each character’s physical mannerisms specifically because they are distinctive. And, once I put this idea in your head, I’ll bet you can imagine what Mickey Mouse would look like if he wanted to impersonate Jafar. And you can probably imagine Jafar mocking Mickey Mouse’s mannerisms.

Disney makes sure to give their main characters unique movement traits as well as bold appearance characteristics. They make their characters easily recognizable at a distance, at a glance, and in nearly every situation. But you? You bought your hood from Mr. S, just like everyone else. Okay, okay. Maybe you used Amazon or Wish or AliExpress. Or maybe you’re fancy and got a custom hood from PNC Creations or Wruff Stuff or whatever. No shade to any manufacturer, but fundamentally there are only so many designs out there. We all, to a certain extent, look alike. To stand out in a crowd, or to be memorable, or to seem engaging, you have to rely on movement to be distinctly you.

Walking Your Walk

So let’s focus on how to be distinctly you. How do you walk when you’re a pup? What about the way you walk on all fours? How does your head move? Your feet and knees? How bouncy are you? Can people recognize your physicality?

As for me, eight years of marching band mean I walk on two feet with stupidly upright posture. (Something something stick up my ass something something.) With my hood on, if I’m walking on two feet, I’m a bit bouncier than I am as a human. My ears flop around a lot, and I move in ways that help emphasize that floppiness—it’s sort of my brand. If I’m walking on four paws, I’m pretty galumphy and uncoordinated. I lead with my snoot most of the time, unless I’m making a beeline for someone I’ve spotted, in which case I lower myself so it almost might look like I’m sniffing out a trail.

You might be a playful pup, a protective pup, and aggressive pup, a shy pup, or any number of other types. Whatever it is, think for a bit about what that personality type looks like when walking into a room. Then ask yourself how you can emphasize your personality a bit more by accentuating those characteristics. How does that personality show through actions and movement?

Communication Through Expression

Speaking of movement, let’s look at how important it is for conveying emotions as a pet player. For this part of the discussion, our hoods are our greatest enemies. When bio-humans engage one another, we use facial expressions and other related body language to convey much of what we mean—and feel. When we wear a hood, we block others from seeing much of those useful details, making people work harder to understand out intentions. It’s only fair if we try and compensate for that blockage by being more expressive with other parts of our bodies. (Hey woodja lookit dat? Dis guy comes all da way from Joisey just ta tell us we gots ta talk wit ah haaands? Whaaatevah.)

But seriously, yes. Pet players need to think in terms of gestures, not expressions. Any time you would normally express something on your face, when you’re in headspace, you need another way to convey that idea. You need to think about what other body part can do what your face would otherwise do. By using a different part of your body, you’re drawing attention to the feeling/expression, making yourself easier to understand. We’ll do an activity with this in just a second, but here’s a quick warm-up: Pretend for a second you’re a dog. (Crazy, I know.) Now pretend you’re confused by something. (Also crazy, I know.) How might your head demonstrate that you’re confused? Now what about your voice? How might that demonstrate your confusion? See—easy to do.

Beyond Our Faces

Let’s try the advanced warm-up. If you’re wearing a hood, keep it on, but let’s all pretend just for a second that we’re all humans. (Shhh…modified Vegas rule is in effect, remember? It’s okay.) Now, pretending to be a human, how would you show you’re confused using only your arms? You’re getting the hang of this. Let’s go for the full activity. Here is a grid of emotion words. And here is what today’s most-common hood looks like when it feels each of those emotions.

For the first part of this activity, if you’re comfortable going without a hood, please consider removing it for about five minutes. With a buddy, practice expressing each of these feelings using only your face (not the hoods on the screen).

A four-column, two-row grid of hand-sketched stick-figure faces of soft earthy tones, each with the name of an emotion beneath. The faces express each emotion cartoonishly. The emotions listed are happy, sad, annoyed, surprised, excited, angry, scared, and secretive.
Face sketches courtesy, ©2016

Next, let’s try the advanced activity. If you took your hood off for the first part, you’re welcome to put it back on now. In fact, I invite anyone who has a hood they’d like to wear to put it on for this part of the activity—it’ll add a challenge. These face sketches show expressions for each feeling. They might look like what you just demonstrated with your buddy. I’ll leave these on the screen for reference. Now your challenge is to repeat the first part of the activity, but with a twist. This time, don’t rely on your face. Use another body part to show each of these feelings.

Communication Through Physicality

Speaking of body parts, let’s talk more about physicality.

As pups, we take up space differently from our bipedal human pals. Anyone who’s worn a tail knows what I’m talking about—people bump into us All. The. Time. because they don’t think the tail is a part of us. But we know. WE KNOWWWW. Our tails give us a sixth sense. We’re more alert than most folks to what’s happening behind us. And our tails allow us to be expressive in ways silly humans cannot: We can wag, we can point, and we can torment easily distractable kitties by…I mean, what?

But think about what makes a puppy tail expressive, why you can understand the message it conveys: It’s almost always in motion. The nature of that movement gives it a character, just like the Bikkja i Bakken sculpture. The same thing applies to your body overall. Think of how you move (or how you don’t) when engaged in conversation. How engaged do you look based on how you move, even while listening? Do you lean forward to encourage someone to say more? Do you tilt your head when you’re confused because dog? What about nodding in support of what they’re saying? Folks who don’t do any of those things start to look a bit like, well, like furniture.

The Ends of Our Bodies

I do want to make sure I highlight one important characteristic of having a tail or a hood: Our bodies change dimensions. Not only do we take up space differently, and sense the world around us differently, but we also have parts in different places. Remembering where all our parts are is critical to building reliable and memorable communication. The best way to explain this is to demonstrate it.

At this point in the class, Aechus plays “Simon Says.” The game is a chance for Aechus to be a bit silly, acting out his persona. Importantly, when Aechus is told that Simon says to touch his nose, Aechus points to a spot a few inches in front of the end of his human nose—touching the tip of his hood’s snoot. But the most critical moment is after the host calls “Simon says hold your ears.” At that point, Aechus’s hands fold his hood’s floppy neoprene ears closed, holding them shut. The next commands go unnoticed because obviously, Aechus the dog can’t hear (because his neoprene ears are blocked) despite the fact we can clearly see Aechus the human’s ears are fully open and accessible. The point is to remember what the character’s body is doing at all times, not just what the human’s body is doing.

Putting it All Together

Let’s recap the overall point now. By remembering our personas, our expressions, and our physicality, pet players can employ effective communication despite the presence of a hood. Doing this allows us to feel the protection offered by the hood and also stay engaged with the people and activity happening around us. If we make sure to show expressions with more than just our faces, if we keep movement at the forefront of our presentation, and if we remember how our performative bodies work, we can drastically improve communications at community events. Identify what sort of critter you are, figure out what you feel, then determine how you can show that feeling to the world around you. You’ll establish trends, connections, and ultimately relationships. Along the way, you’ll also build confidence, resilience, and character.

To make this really personal for a second, imagine how much better you will feel knowing that you put in a little bit of effort that makes you a lot more interesting to engage with. Or imagine the satisfaction you’ll feel when a conversation strikes up and you turn it into a performance, playing around with the other person through your interactive style. Or—shout out to my fellow sapiosadists out there—imagine how maniacally you’ll laugh when you discover people expect your reactions so consistently that you live in their heads rent-free, allowing you to attend events without leaving home. Sweet, sweet solitude, amirite?

Communication Through Gestural Storytelling

More seriously, I want to introduce the concept of gestural storytelling. Think of it like miming that’s highly interactive. Or, if you’ve visited the Disney theme parks, think of how it works when people go beyond simply taking a photo and instead actually engage with the characters. The overall goal here is to think of yourself as always telling a story, even when you don’t think you are. When you’re between conversations, your persona, expressions, and physicality still speak volumes about you. Attending to them helps you stay in control of how you present to others. This way, your actions and behavior can tell the story you want.

All of this weekend’s contestants know that they’re always being judged, even when they’re not in the spotlight. Similarly, our communication is always being judged by the people around us and the rest of our community. The way we manage our personas, expressions, and physicality determines how we show up to the world. Our actions and gestures put our personalities on display, making it easier others to see us, understand us, and engage with us. But that all takes intentional, deliberate effort. It’s not hard to do, and it’s literally life-giving. All we have to do is figure out what story we’re going to tell.