By Joe Roberts @jrobertsjourno
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Videographer / director: Colin Weatherby
Producer: Joe Roberts, James Thorne
Editor: James Thorne
Tony McGinn, known as ‘Tony Bark’ to his friends, says he has been into animal role-play his entire life, and refers to himself as a “human pup”.
Tony, who is transgender, is supported by his husband and “handler” Andrew, 32, who accompanies Tony to regular play dates with other role-players.
Tony, 30, of Los Angeles, told Barcroft Media: “To me a dog is everything pure in the world. Dogs experience the world through a lens of pure joy that I don’t think other animals have.
“A lot of little kids like to play like they’re a dog and most of them grow out of it. I just never grew out of that.
“And now in my adult life, in my relationships, it’s a way for me to feel vulnerable and exposed and close to my partner. It’s a very intimate thing.
“Imagine if the easiest way to delight your partner is you just throw a ball across the room. Relationships wouldn’t fail anymore if that’s all you had to do.”
Andrew added: “I hang out and I provide him with lots of attention and tell him he is a good boy. That’s basically 90 percent of it.
“I think everyone should feel comfortable exploring the limits of their creativity and imagination and most of us have grown up in a culture that strongly discourages you from taking it too far.
“I appreciate that I am married to someone who encourages me to explore my imagination and my interests wherever they lead and I try to do the same.”
The couple have known each other since 2009 and have three dogs of their own, which they refer to as “bio dogs”.
But that doesn’t mean Tony doesn’t think of himself as a ‘real dog’. He states confidently that he “identifies as a dog” and says pet play is about getting into the head-space of the animal.
“Pet play is anytime that a person takes on the role of an animal,” he explained. “They emulate that animal either through their behaviour or their actions.
“I do consider myself as a pup at all times every day, but I don’t engage in pet play every day.
“We engage in pet play actively a few times a month, and it’s often in a social setting such as a club or an event.
“Some people wear costumes, some people try to get into the head space of the animal and think as an animal would.”
Tony does all of these, donning a home-made dog “hood” for his pet play meetings, as well as a dildo harness which he reverses and uses to hold a rubber silicone tail.
Despite the use of the dildo harness, he maintains that his pastime remains an entirely innocent hobby.
“For me it’s not sexual but it’s still a form of intimacy because it is a vulnerable place,” he said. “It’s a bit of a power dynamic that puts Andrew in charge and I enjoy that.”
Andrew added: “We don’t make it sexual but I have nothing against those who do. More power to those who do.”
Tony particularly enjoys playing fetch and tug of war with Andrew, who says he is happy to act as Tony’s handler.
“In a practical sense all I really do is help fill out the fantasy by being the human,” said Andrew. “In the same way a human looks after their pet to make sure that their pet doesn’t have a little too much fun and hurt themselves.
“I bring water and just tell Tony when he needs to chill out.”
But pet play is not just a personal hobby for the couple. Tony has won numerous competitions and awards for his pet play, including two ‘best in show’ awards.
“People come to my house and they see my ribbons and they say, ‘Oh, you have won all those ribbons at dog shows.’
“But they rarely ask if I am the dog.”
Six years ago, Andrew and Tony became part of the LA Pony and Critter Club – an animal role-play group founded by Ann Noble.
Ann, who says she started the club to provide a safe space for people to explore animal role-play, holds regular ‘play dates’ for her members.
“We have just the best time,” said Ann. “Every time I do it, it’s like the best time of my life, it’s the best moment of my life.
“There’s a difference between childish and child-like. Animal role-play allows you, as an adult, to recapture those childlike moments of the world being extraordinary.
“There’s childlike moments of, ‘What if I did this?’ and the magic of doing that.”
The LA Pony and Critter Club founder now spends most of her time training other pony role-players, but has her own animal persona, Beauty the pony, who she says has got her through some hard times.
“There are times when I go to do things in life – everything from hiking a mountain to getting through paper work – and Beauty will march through it. She is strong. She has a lot of heart.”
The group holds numerous events, including dog shows, herding events, and a biannual fox hunt where human pups hunt down human foxes in a kind of ‘capture the flag’ scenario.
All of which might seem unusual to those outside the animal role-play community, but Tony says he rarely, if ever, has to deal with criticism or judgement from others.
“I consider myself out and very open,” said Tony. “That being said, I do compartmentalise my pet play because not everyone wants or needs to see that.
“My family, for example. I think they have a general idea that I am into some kinky stuff but we don’t talk about it.
“The thing is, most people when you say I am going to a dog show and I am participating in the dog show, they kind of, assume you are not the dog.
“So I never had to explain that. I never have faced any sort of discrimination.”
Andrew added: “I think people misunderstand pet play when they place the concepts of sex, animals, and pretending next to each other and get freaked out.
“Once you get up close and see their relationship to one another, you realise it’s pretty benign.
“A lot of people expect it to be a taboo if they are not familiar with it. But when you live in Los Angeles in 2018, being close-minded about someone’s weird hobby is more damming than any weird hobby could be.”
Tony added: “I think everyone should try it once, and if they like it, they should try it a second time.”