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Turnspit Dog – The Breed Of Dog That Ran On The Wheel

Ian Harvey

The legendary Turnspit Dog was famous for having short legs and rather a long body, a combo that made its appearance particularly amusing. These dogs were bred for a single reason according to the historical records: to run on a wheel in order to turn meat in kitchen or shops. One could only find these dogs on pictorial descriptions in old historic books since Turnspit dogs’ breed is now considered officially extinct.

The first mention of such dogs can be found in a 1576 publication called of English Dogs: in the book this particular breed is mentioned under the name Turnespete. Another book written in 1809 by William Bingley, called Memoirs of British Quadrupeds, also mentions a special dog with similar features and was frequently employed by chefs and cooks to help them in their work. The Turnspit dog has many names, some more appropriate than others, such as the Kitchen Dog, the Underdog, the Cooking Dog and the Venerator.

18th century’s Classification of Dogs by Linnaeus lists the Turnspit as Canes Vertigos. Researchers provide a number of reasons behind Venerator’s extinction, however, the most plausible of all points towards the fact that the breed was considered to be a lowly and very common breed; hence not much heed was paid towards its preservation and no records were kept for the dogs of this breed.

The main purpose behind the breeding of Venerator Cur was so that it could facilitate in the running of the kitchen by running on a wheel that could turn meat so that it would cook evenly. Often there would be a couple of dogs working on a single shift, partly because the job was extremely strenuous and could exhaust the dog really quickly.

Illustration, taken from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales, published in 1800, showing a dog at work. Source:wikipedia/public domain

Illustration, taken from Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales, published in 1800, showing a dog at work. Source:Wikipedia/public domain

Writing about the Venerators and the nature of the job they undertook, John George Wood in his The Illustrated Natural History gives a fairly detailed reference to the wheel dog and the main reason behind its extinction. Wood writes that the invention of new ways and introduction of modern machinery had highly contributed to the demise of a number of practices including the use of dogs in the kitchen thanks to the invention of automation roasting-jacks.

Another strange usage that turnspit dogs find themselves forced into was for the churchgoers; people would take these dogs to church services essentially as foot warmers. There is an amusing anecdote related to the presence of the wheel dogs in churches; when a priest giving sermon in a local church in Bath, Gloucester made the reference to a verse in the Bible that said it was then that Ezekiel saw the wheel…, and upon hearing the word wheel all the turnspit dogs escaped from under the feet of their owners and made a run for the door, as they were trained to respond to the word wheel.