Victoria Lu

Hot: having a relatively high temperature; sexy; of intense and immediate interest

Dog: a highly variable domestic mammal (Canis familiaris) closely related to the grey wolf

I remember the moment I began to think about hot dogs. While deceptively similar in form, the hot dogs I’m referring to aren’t fast food items, nor is the term a synonym for “cute dogs.” It was approximately week 50,000 of quarantine and I’d gotten to the point where I’d close Instagram, think “Hmmm, I wonder what’s new on Instagram,” and immediately reopen Instagram. It was there, scrolling through the stories of people I had not spoken to since 2015, that I saw a simple poll. On the left side, a picture of a dog; on the right side, also a picture of a dog. The dogs had names. I chose a dog. Then, a similar screen appeared with two different dogs. I’d stumbled upon the account of self-appointed King of Hot Dogs, Simon Fraser ’20.

From July until last week, Fraser, username @swissmilkchateu, has run several March Madness-style hot dog competition brackets to determine the hottest dog in the world. After three brackets (as well as a few Hot Dog King of the Court matchups); hundreds of dogs; and over 100,000 votes cast, Stanley Wiggins, a chestnut-colored dachshund, took the crown.

As the various brackets progressed, I became more and more invested in the contest. I developed favorites, had my heart broken and felt an extreme sense of validation when I voted on a dog and saw that over 70 percent of respondents agreed with me. But voting on legions of dogs, one after the other, started to feel like a cross between Tinder and that game Duck or Llama that everyone played for about three days in high school, and that felt weird and gross. So to interrogate that feeling, I pitched this story. The questions I set out to answer were both simple and sprawling: why are we so drawn to these hot dog competitions? In essence, what does it all mean?

To figure this out, I had to hear about the contest straight from the horse’s mouth. Simon called me from Madequecham Beach in Nantucket, a fact that nearly caused me to hang up the phone and cancel our interview when he told me. I spoke to him while staring at the plants on my windowsill, which I had recently purchased on Free and For Sale. At least two of the plants came with fungus gnat infestations, and I occasionally muted my side of the call in order to smack my palm against a wall and crush a gnat that had landed there.

Based on that conversation, I’ve come to these conclusions, which are at once all true and complete subjective tomfoolery. Like an inkblot test, you see what you want to see out of the hot dog competition. Maybe it says more about you than anything else. 

The hot dog competition embodies our desperate need for competition

I haven’t followed sports closely for several years, but I watched part of my friend group psychologically unravel in the months that sporting events were not televised live. I even know the words to an unofficial anthem of FC Slutsk, a Belarusian soccer team, because of the single-minded fanaticism of people who follow sports and the lengths to which they will go to get that dopamine fix.

These people, whose brains have become hardwired for competition of any kind, turned their attention to hot dogs as a last-ditch option. Especially toward the final faceoffs, the comments section devolved into petty name-calling of one dog by the other dog’s standoms. 

I also asked Simon about the uncomfortable parallels to dogfighting that I observed in the way the contest functioned.

“I think pitting them against each other on their looks is better than pitting them against each other in the ring,” he said.

The hot dog competition is a parable for natural selection

Domestication is an example of artificial selection, a method by which humans have caused dogs to evolve in discernible ways over tens of thousands of years, as opposed to millions. One recent study singled out dogs’ eyebrows as a product of this kind of selection: a comparison between dogs and wolves found that all dogs, but only some wolves have a muscle to raise their inner eyebrow. What we think happened is that the dogs with the muscle were able to communicate better with humans, through those classic “puppy dog eyes.” Humans gave those dogs more attention and food, and so eyebrowed dogs survived.

What does this have to do with hot dogs? Voting on these dogs is a kind of natural selection played out on a minute scale. “Survival of the hottest,” if you will. Because at the end of the day, natural selection is really just a popularity contest where the judge is life.

The hot dog competition is a popularity contest for your dog

This is perhaps the easiest “greater meaning” to understand. Any matchup in which people vote on something is, by definition, a popularity contest. But what complicates matters is that for many dog owners, their dog is the hottest dog in their eyes.

“It’s the almost arrogant hope that drives people to submit their dogs. They’ll say, ‘This is the hottest dog,’ and I look at this dog and I see a 6,” Simon said.

The hot dog contest strips away the veneer of polite society, where no one will tell you to your face whether or not your dog is truly hot. The hive mind does us all a favor by acting as a check for all the would-be dogstagram accounts for which there was no demand. I am also a hypocrite because I made an Instagram account for my cat today.

The hot dog competition is a popularity contest for you

A spin on the previous takeaway. Sure, there’s self-satisfaction of your Teacup Yorkie walloping a Chow Chow in the round of 16, but non-dog owners can profit from the madness too. Being in the majority gave me smug, “told-you-so”-ness; being in the minority caused me to reevaluate my priorities. What did everyone else see in that dog that I missed? Simon agreed with this analysis.

“There’s the horror of realizing you’re in the minority,” he said.

The hot dog competition speaks to the fundamental brokenness of mankind

As previously mentioned, it took on the order of tens of thousands of years to domesticate dogs. We could have left it at wolves! We had to go a step further, making mindful pairings and completely messing up the bulldog’s respiratory system and ability to give birth just so we could produce an animal that satisfies our arbitrary standards of beauty. And for what? So in 2020, we could yet again match up dogs to come to some Platonic ideal of a hot dog. Aren’t all dogs hot, just as they are all good boys? The hot dog contest was never about the dogs — it was about our own inability to leave well enough alone.

Maddie Bender | madeline.bender@yale.edu