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Interview

Speedrunning Dog Talks To Blog

"Arf!"

9:52 AM EST on February 5, 2024

JSR

Despite a digital audience of over 70,000 people, Peanut Butter was not nervous. “Arf!” the three-year-old shiba inu replied defiantly when asked by Aftermath if nerves got to him during his Awesome Games Done Quick run of Gyromite, which fell sadly short of a world record. It just wasn’t his day, added his owner, and technical troubles didn’t help matters. But Peanut Butter has been training for nearly his whole life to become the world’s greatest canine speedrunner, and now he’s ready for even bigger stages.

Peanut Butter’s celebrity turn at the AGDQ charity speedrunning marathon last month was the culmination of years of training, which began with his owner, a speedrunner and electrician who goes by the handle JSR, attempting to speedrun what is now Peanut Butter’s game of choice as part of a self-imposed years-long, multi-game challenge. Gyromite released in 1985 as one of just two games to officially utilize Nintendo’s experimental Robotic Operating Buddy (ROB) accessory, which makes playing it in this day and age a difficult proposition. So JSR created his own take on ROB’s proprietary red-and-blue button interface by “Frankensteining” two NES controllers together with duct tape. 

But then JSR, who had adopted Peanut Butter in 2020 while stuck in pandemic lockdown, got to thinking: He was living with this remarkably intelligent dog to whom he’d already taught a bunch of other tricks in a short span. A dog he named Peanut Butter in part because of the initials “PB,” which also stand for “personal best,” a common speedrunning term. It was destiny. 

"Coming up with this controller, I thought to myself, 'Why am I even bothering with this?' And that was kind of where the idea was planted for me to train Peanut Butter,” JSR told Aftermath. “I was like, 'You know, you're pretty smart, buddy. Do you think you could press the button?' He looked at me like, 'You'd better have a treat if you're gonna have me do a thing.'"

So JSR scrapped his ramshackle NES controller rig and started anew by modifying a fightstick peripheral – like you’d use with Street Fighter or any number of other arcade-y fighting games – by yanking out the analog stick and wiring some buttons in series to effectively create two main buttons, along with a third in the middle that presses both. From there, it was as simple as having Peanut Butter replace ROB, something he took to like a dog to pretty much any activity that gets it treats. 

“Training him to press the button was literally day one,” said JSR. “Day one, he nailed it.”

But that, JSR continued, is not the hard part of teaching a dog to play video games. Unlike the basic actions that go into sitting, rolling over, or fetching – feats often mastered even by less intelligent dogs – games play out on their own terms. Relatively short games can last ages in Dog Time. That ended up being the biggest hump JSR and Peanut Butter had to get over.

“The hard part's not only getting [dogs] to hold it down long enough for you to do what you need to do in the game, but also for them to release the button and not go wander off and grab a tennis ball,” said JSR. “That was probably the hardest thing: getting him to be able to sit and keep his attention on me for 20-30 minutes at a time.”

Training Peanut Butter to stay dialed in took nine months of daily training. Every single morning they’d work together for at least five or ten minutes. 

“Now he’s capable of holding [the button] for 30 seconds before he finally gives up,” said JSR. “He doesn’t wander off. I’ve had him on stream playing games for up to an hour, and he just sits there and does his thing. That’s his true talent, over everything else, the only thing I think would be hard for someone else to do with their own dog: his attention, his ability to just sit there and focus on what I’m asking him to do. That’s what makes him special.”   

That’s his true talent, over everything else, the only thing I think would be hard for someone else to do with their own dog: his attention, his ability to just sit there and focus on what I’m asking him to do.

Even so, JSR follows a precise routine to make sure Peanut Butter is in the zone before a run, one that he was able to employ during AGDQ because Peanut Butter streamed his run from home instead of attending the event in-person/dog. The routine begins, as running typically does, with a walk. Going out to the park gets Peanut Butter all riled up, at which point the two return home, ideally hungrier than when they left. JSR usually feeds Peanut Butter a little less prior to runs – not so much so that he’s starving, but to ensure that he can use kibble as a currency for button presses instead of “giving him 800 calories of cheese every time I attempt a run.” Still, JSR escalates to ensure that Peanut Butter keeps his eye – and paw – on the controller. Over the course of a run, kibble gives way to treats, which give way to cheese and ham. 

But all of that only happens if Peanut Butter is in the mood to play video games to begin with.

"The biggest thing is getting him to engage and want to be here,” said JSR. “I won't do this if he's not feeling it. If he's not interested in doing it, I don't want to force him."

It would be easy for somebody in JSR’s position to view a dog as nothing more than a means to an end. He absolutely does not. Peanut Butter is his best friend.

"He minds everything I tell him,” JSR said. “He doesn't pee in the house. He doesn't chew on anything. I got lucky. I genuinely can't take credit for any of that. He's just special. I knew it the moment I adopted him."

Peanut Butter is capable of playing multiple games, but for now, he’s only a world-caliber speedrunner in one. JSR hopes to change that before too much longer.

"We're not done with Gyromite yet. We'd like to get a deathless, flawless run,” said JSR. “But I think he's ready and I'm ready to try some new stuff.”

There are limits, though. JSR doesn’t want Peanut Butter to sink to the level of base gimmickry. His one rule is that the dog must actually play the video game.

“I'm not touching any of these buttons,” he said. “Granted, I am the one making decisions on what buttons to press, but if he misstimes one or doesn't press it down, I can't go in and save him. That's what makes it so intriguing, right? That does limit what we're able to play, because I can't just fire up Mario or Metroid or Sonic The Hedgehog and have him play it." 

Peanut Butter has proven capable of knocking out Glass Joe – the first opponent – in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out and was just 0.25 seconds off from a world-record pace. JSR says they’re “working on that one.” He’s also shown promise when playing Wild Gunmen, an NES game that was featured in Back To The Future 2. But world records are hard to come by when you’re effectively a dog in a trench coat standing on a human’s shoulders. 

“It's very difficult because, again, it's my reaction time and his reaction time,” said JSR. “But he did get one kill of 0.00 reaction time, which is literally frame perfect."

It’s looking like Peanut Butter’s second “official” speedrun will take place in Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball on the Super Nintendo. Peanut Butter is competing in the win-a-game category. According to JSR, he’s basically got it all locked up. He just needs to… win a game.

He's just special. I knew it the moment I adopted him.

"We've gotten it to the ninth inning tied three times and into extra innings twice, but we have not been able to win it,” said JSR. “We've been very close!"

It all comes back to the hacked-together dog fightstick, another limiting factor. JSR has begun to conceptualize alternative control options like a Dance Dance Revolution pad or even a multi-person setup where one runner is on D-pad duty while Peanut Butter jumps and shoots. Nothing is set in stone yet, however. 

As tends to be the case with these things, the clock is ticking down. Whatever Peanut Butter is going to do next, JSR would like to have it ready by summer: “Hopefully we can have something ready for [Summer Games Done Quick], because we'd like to try to submit something to that marathon to be in person where Peanut Butter would actually be at the event on the stage."

JSR

Of course, that presents its own challenges. How do you keep a dog on a stage from getting distracted by all the bright lights, booming sounds, and applauding people? JSR isn’t sure yet, but he thinks Peanut Butter can handle the pressure. Peanut Butter has been filmed – by an actual film crew – playing video games before, and he still heeded JSR’s commands and got the job done. That’s when JSR realized Peanut Butter could probably make the jump from a digital stage to a real one. He just needs a little more training. 

"I don't know exactly what the best scenario would be to prepare him for that: a concert, a park, a school, the DMV?” said JSR. “But if I could take him somewhere that was crowded and get him to react the way I want him to, I do think it is possible." 

And if Peanut Butter gets caught up in the moment – as we all have, because Peanut Butter is us and we are Peanut Butter – then so be it.

“It's acceptable to have time losses if the dog needs to run into the crowd and get some treats or pets,” said JSR. “I feel like the leaderboard should make exceptions for that. But you know, as a runner and a trainer, I can only work within the rules."

Even if none of those doggy dreams materialize and this is as far as Peanut Butter’s speedrunning career goes, JSR won’t have a single regret.

"If this is my one big contribution that I can give to the community – that a dog and I spent a few lazy mornings in 2022 and 2023 working on button presses for treats and that turned into raising over $33,000 for Prevent Cancer [Foundation]? That, to me, makes all of that work worth it,” he said. "It's really neat that a dog and some middle-aged guy in Las Vegas spent a little time doing this, and it may not amount to anything and it may be forgotten in a month, but we made our mark. We did something that's never been done before. That to me is worth more than a payday or a sponsorship or any of that stuff."

BONUS Q&A WITH PEANUT BUTTER

Aftermath: Were you nervous at all during your AGDQ run? 

Peanut Butter: [Excited bark!] (He was not. He felt confident.)

Aftermath: How confident were you?

Peanut Butter: [Raises paw.] (Very confident.)

Aftermath: Are you disappointed that you didn’t beat your personal best – that you didn’t set a world record?

Peanut Butter: [Attempts to evade a difficult question through feigned ignorance and/or gets distracted by a treat.]

Aftermath: What is your favorite treat?

Peanut Butter: [Barks at the idea of being given a Bit, so probably those.]

Aftermath: What is your favorite toy? Do you prefer a ball or a chew toy or some other third thing?

Peanut Butter: [Goes and grabs a stuffed animal of a killer whale.]

JSR: His bunny is his favorite toy, but he’s being a little uncooperative at the moment.

Translation assistance provided by JSR.

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