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Turnspit Dog
Country of origin United Kingdom
Traits
Illustration, taken from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales, published in 1800. Notice the dog at work.

The Turnspit Dog is a short-legged, long-bodied dog bred to run on a wheel, called a turnspit or dog wheel, to turn meat. The type is now extinct. It is mentioned in Of English Dogs in 1576 under the name Turnespete. Rev. W. Bingley's Memoirs of British Quadrupeds (1809) also talks of a dog employed to help chefs and cooks. It is also known as the Kitchen Dog, the Cooking Dog, the Underdog and the Vernepator. In Linnaeus's 18th century classification of dogs it is listed as Canis vertigus. The breed was lost since it was considered to be such a lowly and common dog that no record was effectively kept of it. They are related, it is believed, to the Glen of Imaal Terrier.

The Vernepator Cur was bred to run on a wheel in order to turn meat so it would cook evenly. This took both courage (to stand near the fire) and loyalty (not to eat the roast). Due to the strenuous nature of the work, a pair of dogs would often be worked in shifts. This may have led to the proverb 'every dog has his day.' The dogs were also taken to church to serve as foot warmers. One story says that during service at a church in Bath, the Bishop of Gloucester, gave a sermon and uttered the line "It was then that Ezekiel saw the wheel...". At the mention of the word "wheel" several turnspit dogs, who had been brought to church as foot warmers, ran for the door.

Turnspit dogs look like Welsh Corgis with long bodies—but they have drooping ears like the weimaraner. From the engravings they look to be about 25 - 35 lbs and possibly 14" to 16" tall. They were described as 'long-bodied, crooked-legged and ugly dogs, with a suspicious, unhappy look about them' in the old English dog book. Often, they are shown with a white stripe down the center of their faces.

According to the Rev John George Wood in The Illustrated Natural History (Mammalia) (1853)

Just as the invention of the spinning-jenny abolished the use of distaff and wheel, which were formerly the occupants of every well-ordained English cottage, so the invention of automaton roasting-jacks has destroyed the occupation of the Turnspit Dog, and by degrees has almost annihilated its very existence. Here and there a solitary Turnspit may be seen, just as a spinning-wheel or a distaff may be seen in a few isolated cottages; but both the Dog and the implement are exceptions to the general rule, and are only worthy of notice as being curious relics of a bygone time.
In former days, and even within the remembrance of the present generation, the task of roasting a joint of meat or a fowl was a comparatively serious one, and required the constant attendance of the cook, in order to prevent the meat from being spoiled by the unequal action of the fire. The smoke-jack, as it was rather improperly termed - inasmuch as it was turned, not by the smoke, but by the heated air that rushed up the chimney - was a great improvement, because the spit revolved at a rate that corresponded with the heat of the fire.
Illustration from The Illustrated Natural History (Mammalia), published in 1853 showing the conformation of a Turnspit Dog.
So complicated an apparatus, however, could not be applied to all chimneys, or in all localities, and therefore the services of the Turnspit Dog were brought into requisition. At one extremity of the spit was fastened a large circular box, or hollow wheel, something like the wire wheels which are so often appended to squirrel-cages; and in this wheel the Dog was accustomed to perform its daily task, by keeping it continually working. As the labour would be too great for a single Dog, it was usual to keep at least two animals for the purpose, and to make them relieve each other at regular intervals. The dogs were quite able to appreciate the lapse of time, and, if not relieved from their toils at the proper hour, would leap out of the wheel without orders, and force their companions to take their place, and complete their portion of the daily toil.
There are one or two varieties of this Dog, but the true Turnspit breed is now nearly extinct in this country. On the Continent, the spits are still turned by canine labour in localities; but the owners of spit and Dog are not particular about the genealogy of the animal, and press into their service any kind of Dog, provided that it is adequately small and sufficiently amenable to authority.

References

  • Of English Dogs. 1576. ISBN 1-905124-05-8
  • The Illustrated Natural History by The Rev JG Wood. 1853.
  • Dogs : the ultimate dictionary of over 1,000 dog breeds by Desmond Morris. 2002. Publisheed by the Ebury Press in 2002 ISBN 0-09-187091-7
  • Memoirs of British Quadrupeds by Bingley, Rev W (illustrated from original drawings, chiefly by Samuel Howitt) 1809
  • Cesar's Way by Cesar Millan. 2006. Published by Three Rivers Press.
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