Turnspit Dog: Bred to Work in the Kitchen

Turnspit dogs became famous in history for the hard work they endured in many kitchens. When no longer needed, they became extinct.

The turnspit dog, also known as the cooking dog and kitchen dog, was bred to walk on a wheel called a turnspit to turn meat so it would cook evenly. The breed was popular in England and, to a lesser extent, America from the 16th century to the late 19th century. Though it is unsure when the first turnspit dog appeared, the first mention of them was in a 1576 book titled Of Englishe Dogs by John Caius. According to Caius, the turnspit was "so low on the social order, nobody took account of them", leaving their history spotty.

Turnspit dog in wheel (upper right corner) turning meat

Turnspits were viewed as kitchen utensils and pieces of machinery rather than as dogs. They were specially bred to have long bodies and short powerful legs to provide a source of power. The dog was placed on a wooden wheel, usually mounted high on the wall. A chain was attached to the wheel and spit so when the dog walked the spit would turn. Turnspit dogs were used mostly in bars and large kitchens, and were forced to walk for hours. Cruel methods were used to keep the dog moving fast and to keep the dog from stopping, like tossing a hot coal into the wheel or applying a collar that would choke the dog if he did not move.

Turnspit dogs usually had Sundays off and would go to church with their families to be used as foot warmers. One story, told in The Annals of Bath, shows the level of abuse these dogs endured. It says that during a church service, the preacher uttered the line "It was then that Ezekiel saw the wheel..." and the dogs bolted for the door at the mention of the word wheel. In the 1850s, Henry Bergh - the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) - was appalled by the way these dogs were being treated. The cruel treatment turnspits were subjected to is reportedly what inspired Bergh to start the ASPCA.

Turnspit dogs were ultimately replaced with cheap mechanical spit turning machines called clock jacks. The dogs were no longer needed in the kitchen and it became a stigma of poverty to have one. They were described as ugly crooked-legged dogs with an unhappy look about them so nobody wanted to keep one as a pet. By the end of the 19th century the breed was officially declared extinct.


A taxidermy dog named Whiskey is the last surviving specimen of a turnspit dog at the Abergavenny Museum in Wales. Some believe the turnspit dog is a relative of the Welsh corgi.

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