Dog History: Turnspit Dogs

You can see the poor Turnspit Dog running a wheel,
in the center-top of this old illustration.
Turnspit dogs.

Ever heard of them? I hadn't, until recently. So what is a Turnspit Dog?

Well, according to our oldest sources, including one book written in 1576, Turnspit Dogs were bred to run on a wheel, called a turnspit. This wheel turned meat so that it would cook evenly. For this reason, the Turnspit Dog was also called the Kitchen Dog, or the Cooking Dog.

These dogs were bred in a particular manner, so as to have stubby legs and long bodies. Estimates put them about 15 inches tall and 30 pounds in weight, and they are usually illustrated with a white stripe down the middle of their large heads. Some sources say they looked like big Welsh Corgis with floppy ears!

The Turnspit Dog's job required courage and loyalty to his master. Running in a wheel by a fire in a hot kitchen for hours on end, smelling cooking meat for hours, but not stealing the meat, giving in to their natural fear of fire, or even stopping to rest. Yet, these Cooking Dogs were not respected by the people, despite the valuable work they did. Go figure.

In his 1870 book, Anecdotes of Dogs, author Edward Jesse wrote:
“How well do I recollect, in the days of my youth, watching the operations of a turnspit at the house of a worthy old Welsh clergyman in Worcestershire, who taught me to read.”
He goes on to describe the scene and the dogs.
“As he had several boarders, as well as day-scholars, his two turnspits had plenty to do. They were long-bodied, crooked-legged, and ugly dogs, with a suspicious, unhappy look about them, as if they were weary of the task they had to do, and expected every moment to be seized upon to perform it. Cooks in those days, as they are said to be at present, were very cross, and if the poor animal, wearied with having a larger joint than usual to turn, stopped for a moment, the voice of the cook might be heard (be)rating (hi)m in no very gentle terms. When we consider that a large solid piece of beef would take at least three hours before it was properly roasted, we may form some idea of the task a dog had to perform in turning a wheel during that time.”
A drawing of a Turnspit Dog. Looks cuddly enough to me!
The dogs couldn't do this day in and day out without dying of exhaustion, of course. So there were usually turnspit teams, and the dogs took shifts. They learned to hide themselves on the days or times when it was not their turn, and sometimes even rebelled against their owners, who were not treating them well at all, when you stop and think about it.

Edward Jesse wrote about an instance said to have happened at the Jesuits' College in La Fl├Ęche:
“After the cook had prepared his meat for roasting, he looked for the dog whose turn it was to work the spit, but not being able to find him, he attempted to employ for this service another that happened to be in the kitchen. The dog, however, resisted, and, having bitten the cook, ran away. The man, with whom the dog was a particular favourite, was much astonished at his ferocity. The wound he had received was a severe one, and bled profusely, so that it was necessary to dress it. While this was doing, the dog, which had run into the garden, and found out the one whose turn it was to work the spit, came driving him before him into the kitchen, when the latter immediately went of his own accord into the wheel.”
So these dogs were no dummies! They had heart and soul, and a brain to boot. They were loyal and hard-working.

In addition to their uses as “Cooking Dogs” the Turnspit Dog would sometimes be taken to church as a foot-warmer. And the children could play with them when they weren't busy working (in those days, the children worked, too, you know; just not on the meat-turning treadmill.) So these dogs performed several uses, including keeping children off meat-turning treadmills, and probably even more than I have found in my research, since they weren't exactly the subject of much study.

Which makes this next part all the worse to say!

Being thought of so lowly, and being treated with such disdain, records were not kept of the incredible Turnspit Dog as a breed, and no attempt to maintain the breed was made. Technology made the job they performed obsolete. Therefore, the breed ceased to exist. It is thought that the modern Glen of Imaal Terrier is a relative of the Turnspit Dog, but beyond that, who knows.

In The Harmsworth Natural History, written in 1910 by R Lydekker, we are already being told of the death of the breed.
“With the cessation of its monotonous occupation has come about the practical extinction of the old English turnspit...”
So, the proud Turnspit Dogs, which sound like they would have been wonderful companions, but were instead treated as unappreciated slaves, had fulfilled their function and ceased to be. A sad story, but one worth sharing.

We modern day dog lovers salute you, Turnspit Dogs! I wish we could have somehow made up for all those years of loyal service you gave, and for mankind's mistreatment of your magnificent breed.

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