Throughout the years, dogs have been selectively bred to perform several tasks, some of those tasks being quite noble, (just think of messenger dogs and search and rescue dogs) while others, well, less so. The turnspit dog is now extinct, but this dog seemed to play quite a big role in many British kitchens of the 16th century. Short-legged, and with a long body, the turnspit dog was also known as the “kitchen dog” or “vernepator cur.” Can you guess for what main task these dogs were used for?
What were turnspit dogs bred for?
A) To carry a cart filled with meat ready to be roasted
B) To lick off any meat grease dropped on the kitchen floors
C) To run on a wheel in order to cook meat evenly
D) To guard any roasted meat from potential mice
The correct answer is: drum roll please…..
The correct answer is: C, to run on a wheel in order to cook meat evenly.
The Kitchen Helper
Back in the 16th century, the kitchens of the British were a far cry from what they look like today. Back in those days, roasting a piece of meat wasn’t an easy task. While today, we just put the meat in a tray and stick it into the oven, or even better, use a rotisserie to obtain a perfectly cooked meal, in the olden days meat was quite vulnerable to being cooked unevenly due to the unpredictable action of an open fire.
So why not put a dog to work and turn him into a handy helper? The idea turned into reality and soon a hollow wheel was invented (somewhat resembling a hamster wheel) and in the wheel was placed the turnspit dog. The wheel was then mounted on a wall or suspended from joists so that these dogs were not overheated and as the dog ran in he wheel, the spit turned. Since the task was sometimes quite tiring, a second dog was often used so to give relief at regular intervals.
Did you know? Linnaeus originally classified the turnspit dog in the eighteenth century as “canis vertigus,” basically, “dizzy dogs.”.
More Than a Kitchen Utensil
Originally known as “turnespete,” turnspit dog were described as small dogs having a long body, crooked legs and a sort of unhappy look on their faces. It’s not too difficult imagining why these dogs looked unhappy. Being exposed to the sight and smell of slowly cooking meat for a good part of the day must have felt frustrating. They were also likely hot and dehydrated.
On top of turning meat, these dogs were also often used in a similar fashion for churning butter, pumping water and operating grain mills and fruit presses, explains Stanley Coren in the book “The Pawprints of History: Dogs and the Course of Human Events.” And on Sundays, many of these dogs were brought along to church, but not for companionship, mostly so they could act as foot warmers on a cold winter day.
Unfortunately, literature provides some insights about these dogs being treated very poorly, so much that it appears that the treatment of turnspit dogs is what may have partially inspired Henry Berg to become the founder of the ASPCA. On a brighter note, some literature seems to suggest that when not used as kitchen utensils, some of these dogs were well cared for. John Bradshaw in the great book “Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet” mentions these dogs were given names and one lucky turnspit dog, going by the name of Fuddle, even got a poem written in his honor.
Did you know? The exact ancestry of the turnspit remains still a mystery, but many believe that it might have played a role in the development of the dachshund breed, while others think it might have been related with the Welsh corgi or some type of terrier such as the Glen of Imaal.
An Extinct Dog
The use of the turnspit dog was quite in vogue in the mid-sixteenth century, but then with the introduction of mechanical devices, this dog remained unemployed and eventually became extinct. The extinction of these dogs though wasn’t abrupt. Even with the invention of mechanical devices, the British seemed to prefer using these dogs. The continued use of these dogs despite the availability of more efficient methods to roast meat, may reflect an affectionate attitude towards these dogs rather than a reluctance to welcome newer technology, suggests Bradshaw. At some point though, their use in inns, restaurants and taverns in Europe and even in some areas in the United States ran out of favor. It was some time around the mid-nineteenth century that turnspit dogs became history.
Did you know? Prior to using turnspit dogs, a servant, preferably a boy known as the “spit boy” or “spit jack,” would be used for turning the metal rod slowly and cooking the meat.
Curious about how turnspit dogs looked like? Here is a picture of a taxidermied turnspit dog from the Abergavenny Museum in Wales: turnspit dog.
- American Kennel Club (2007). The Complete Dog Book (20th ed.). Random House. p. 467. ISBN 978-0-307-41699-5
- Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet Paperback – May 8, 2012 by Basic Books; Reprint edition (May 8, 2012)
- The Pawprints of History: Dogs and the Course of Human Events, By Stanley Coren, Atria Books; Reprint edition (April 2, 2003)
- Our Debt to the Dog: How the Domestic Dog Helped Shape Human Societies, By Bryan D. Cummins, Carolina Academic Press (April 16, 2013)
- The World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia edited by Merril D. Smith Ph.D. Greenwood (August 28, 2015)
- The Kitchen Sisters “Turnspit Dogs: The Rise and Fall of the Vernepator Cur”. The Salt. Retrieved August 2nd, 2016
- Wikipedia, Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales, published in 1800, public domain
- Illustrated Natural History, Published USA pre-1923, public domain – Rev JG Wood,
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