Look at the wheel mounted on the wall. You will see a turnspit dog at work in the inn at Newcastle, Carmarthen, Wales, c1800 (1869). Source: (Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
There are hundreds of dog breeds and we know that many of dogs were bred to do specific jobs to help humans, like herd sheep or stand watch or rescue victims of avalanches. But did you know that some dogs in the United Kingdom were designed and bred to help with a very important kitchen duty…turning the spit? Large chunks of meat, like a whole hog or whole chicken, were threaded on a stick and left to roast over an open fire. The problem was, the meat had to be turned regularly or one side would burn. The clever Brits thought up a way to get the job done!
An Essential Member of the Kitchen Staff
Around the 1500s, nearly large inn, tavern, manor house, or castle in the UK had some turnspit dogs working in the kitchen. A dog was caged in a contraption that can best be described as a large hamster wheel. The wheel was attached to a pulley system that connected to the spit, or rotisserie, over the fireplace. As the pooch ran in the wheel, the meat on the spit turned until it was evenly cooked. More importantly, it freed up the kitchen staff from doing this necessary but tedious job.
The Vernepator Cur, or the Canis Vertigus
Turnspit dogs were also known as vernepator cur, a Latin phrase meaning “dog that turns the wheel.” When Carl Linnaeus developed his classification of all animal species, he included the vernepator cur. He named this breed of dog the Canis vertigus, Latin for “dizzy dog.”
A Welsh corgi. Source: (vetstreet.com)
The ideal turnspit dog had to be small enough to easily fit in the hamster-like wheel. But it also needed to have a lot of endurance and be trainable. Fortunately, the United Kingdom had no shortage of dogs and dog breeders. We have references to turnspit dogs in many works of literature from the era, including Shakespeare’s writings, that note the use of turnspit dogs. They are described as low-bodied, with drooping ears, stocky legs, and short fur. Early descriptions seem to indicate that a variety of small dog breeds were used, with coats of gray, white, black, and reddish brown. But as the Middle Ages wore on, it appears that a distinctive breed had been developed for the task. Although some people claim that the Canis vertigus went extinct, others feel as though this dog breed simply morphed into one of the breeds we recognize today, such as the Welsh Corgi or lesser-known Glen of Imaal terrier.
A Dangerous and Boring Job
Prior to using trained dogs to turn their cooking spits, the Brits had a human do the job. It was usually assigned to a servant child, a lowly worker, or used as a form of punishment for lazy work habits. It was not only extremely boring to do nothing but turn a spit all day long, it was dangerous too. People passed out from heat exhaustion from sitting so close to the fire. Interestingly, the Brits took care to protect the turnspit dogs that they didn’t do to protect humans. The turnspit dog’s wheel was usually mounted on a wall well away from the fire, so the animal did not get overheated.
Training the Vernepator Cur
The Brits were skilled at breeding dogs to fit an intended purpose. For the vernepator cur, or turnspit dogs, they bred a compact and strong dog that had boundless energy and endurance. They also made sure the dog was intelligent enough to be trained. A new dog was enticed to run on the wheel with small bits of meat and bread as positive reinforcement. A well-trained, established turnspit dog, however, was punished if it got lazy in the wheel. A lump of hot coal or ember was tossing onto the wheel to force the dog to run.
Sunday, a Day of Rest
When the turnspit dogs were done with kitchen duty and on Sundays, when the kitchen staff had the day off, the vernepator cur had a second job to do. The small but stout dogs were trained to sit on their owners’ feet to keep them warm in drafty medieval castles and manor houses. The turnspit dogs were even brought to church on Sundays with the family, again to act as feet warmers, not because the owners wanted the dogs to worship with them.
Charles Darwin. Source: (thoughtco.com)
Charles Darwin Mentioned Turnspit Dogs
When supporting his theories on evolution, Charles Darwin often cited the turnspit dog as an example of selective breeding and genetic engineering. He once wrote, “Look at the spit dog. That’s an example of how people can breed animals to suit a specific need.”
The Vernepator Cur in America
It might be easy to chalk up the turnspit dogs as a uniquely British innovation, but there is evidence of the use of turnspit dogs in America. Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn and his wife, Hannah, wrote a letter to acquaintances in England asking them to ship over a new wheel for her turnspit dogs. The Pennsylvania Gazette, owned by Benjamin Franklin, carried ads for both turnspit dogs and the wheels. As late as 1850, reports of the mistreatment of turnspit dogs in the kitchens of some of Manhattan’s finest hotels led to public outrage and the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. By this time, however, the use of turnspit dogs in kitchens in the United Kingdom and the United States was dying out. Mechanical means of turning cooking spits meant that the vernepator cur, or turnspit dogs, were out of work.