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A Smash Tournament Brought in Therapy Dogs to Help Players Destress

Fighting game tournaments are stressful places. There’s an immense amount of pressure before a set even starts, and a surge of emotion by time it ends. Win or lose, the tension can be overwhelming. What better way to take some of the edge off than giving a warm belly rub to a furry friend like Monroe, a hundred-pound bernedoodle? That’s what Super Smash Bros. tournament The Big House aimed to do earlier this month when — in a first for a major fighting game competition — they partnered with a non-profit to bring in therapy dogs for the event.

Canine Good Citizens

The idea was Laura Rall’s, a social work graduate student at the University of Michigan and staff member at The Big House.

“Earlier this summer, I was talking with a friend who plays Melee about performance anxiety. This friend and I share a mutual love of dogs, so I jokingly said that The Big House should have therapy dogs,” she told me.

That thought stayed tucked away in the back of her mind until she finally decided to approach Robin Harn, host of the tournament. He gave her the greenlight and she reached out to local organizations with her proposal. They moved forward with the one that got back to them first — Go Team, a non-profit organization which boasts over 800 teams of handlers and therapy dogs across the country. Go Team’s dogs must pass a 10-step Canine Good Citizen test administered by the American Kennel Club (AKC). The test evaluates things like a prospective dog’s reactions to being around other dogs, being able to sit still for petting, and accepting friendly strangers.

Bonnie and Paul Barbick were among the handlers at the tournament. They brought three dogs with them: the aforementioned Monroe, Rosalee the miniature goldendoodle, and Adalind, a young SwissRidge doodle. Monroe and Rosalee have completed 200 visits to various schools, shelters, and events, which has earned them an AKC Excellent accolade. Adalind, being the youngest, still has some work to do to catch up to the others.

Some dogs are easily agitated by loud noises, and fighting game tournaments can get rowdy. So another important aspect of the dogs’ preparation is what Bonnie and Paul refer to as “firehouse training.” The dogs must be able to calmly walk around or obey a command to sit still while a fire truck’s lights and sirens blare.

The pair had Magic: the Gathering events in the past, but The Big House was their first time at a fighting game tournament. With a little help from her kids and daughter-in-law, Bonnie even made something special to commemorate the event: dog bananas featuring Nintendo characters.

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Dog in Mario hat at The Big House Smash Tournament
Photo via The Big House

Monroe, Rosalee, and Adalind made an appearance alongside a handful of other dogs on the first day of The Big House for about two hours, and on the second alongside six other pooches. All of the dogs wore vests with pouches containing vaccination paperwork and all necessary documentation about their certifications.

The dogs were stationed near the check-in desk located just outside of the main tournament hall, so as to accommodate anyone who might be skittish around dogs. There was also over-the-counter allergy medicine, hand sanitizer, and lint rollers handy for anyone who needed them.

Opening Up Conversations

The response to the initial announcement about the dogs was mostly positive, but The Big House did receive some negative feedback.

“Some comments were like, ‘Why do gamers need therapy? If you can’t handle losing, go home.’ But, as someone who enjoys tournaments but doesn’t compete, I want to express the multitude of ways therapy dogs can be beneficial,” Rall said. She noted that the dogs weren’t simply there to comfort losers, pointing out that they might be helpful for anyone stressed out by big crowds or loud noises.

To Rall, dismissive comments and ridicule around competitive stress are indicative of a larger problem. “I think the FGC and videogame communities in general don’t appear to value mental health as a priority,” she said. “This is something that I really hope changes, especially because for people like me, I use video games as a way to practice self-care and work with my anxiety.”

Things are changing, though. Multiple-time world champion in numerous games SonicFox opened up about their own struggles with anxiety and depression earlier this year, and Justin “Plup” McGrath, a top Melee player, spoke with candor to ESPN last year about experiencing a panic attack after a third-place loss at Evo.

Looking back, Rall considers the experiment a huge success. “The response I observed and then heard secondhand was overwhelmingly positive.”

Players rub a dog's belly at The Big House
Photo via @TheBigHouse

Other people seem to feel the same way. “My time spent with the dogs was pretty amazing […] therapy dogs make this tournament experience truly stand out as it is very beneficial for competitors and very unique as a whole!” said Crash101, who attended the tournament.

Doeboy, a technical producer for The Big House, added, “Playing in a tournament is stressful. Casting is stressful. Traveling is stressful. Most things in life can be stressful! […] Implementing measures to consider mental health, even if small, is a great way to boost the longevity and endurance of the Smash scene. It’s also great for the social media side of things — who doesn’t want a picture with a pupper?”

For Rall, this is just the beginning. She wants to bring mental health to the attention of the FGC, making it as normal and important as taking care of one’s hands. For now, though, the therapy dogs seem to have made a big impact. And others working on these issues have taken notice.

“I think it’s great visibility into the fact that everyone needs help sometimes,” says Susan Arendt, co-founder of Take This, a non-profit focused on mental health in gaming. “Dogs have no agenda, make no demands. They don’t care if you won or lost, you haven’t let them down — your emotional relationship with them is very, very simple, and being in that environment can be very helpful for people in an agitated state. There’s no shame in needing a friend when you’re upset, and a dog is a friend with no expectations or judgment.”

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