Weird History Dogs Used To Be Tortured To Cook Food For Poor People  

Genevieve Carlton
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For centuries, poor people relied on dog labor in the kitchen. Small, short-legged dogs were forced to run in a wheel for hours to cook meat on a spit. Sometimes, owners even tossed a hot coal in the wheel to speed up the dogs.

They were called turnspit dogs, and unlike their fellow working dog breeds, they didn’t run outside in the fresh air. These dogs were forced to cook meat in the Middle Ages, until their pooch power was finally replaced by modern machines in the 1900s. 

The turnspit dog breed was designed to fit in a wheel and run for hours, all so that a person didn’t have to turn the roasting spit. People have been breeding and abusing dogs for centuries as the history of the bulldog exemplifies – and the turnspit dogs are no exception.

The poor dogs were described as “ugly” and “unhappy” – but can you blame them? 

For Centuries, Turnspit Dogs Labored In Hot Kitchens To Cook Meat For Poor People

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Imagine an English kitchen from the 1500s – and not one in a nobleman’s castle. An open hearth takes up nearly one wall of the room, and an iron cauldron or kettle hangs over the fire to heat water. You might also find a spit for roasting meat. And hanging above the fire, you might see a large wheel, spinning in place.

No, that contraption isn’t for the pet hamster – it was powered by a small dog who ran in place to turn the spit of meat over the fire.

Humans have been cooking meat over fires for tens of thousands of years. But it wasn’t until the 1500s that people realized they could outsource the exhausting labor of cooking to an animal: the turnspit dog.

Turnspit Dogs Had "A Suspicious, Unhappy Look," And No One Loved Them

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Turnspit dogs were “long-bodied, crooked-legged, and ugly dogs,” according to Edward Jesse, who wrote Anecdotes of Dogs in 1846. They also had “a suspicious, unhappy look about them, as if they were weary of the task they had to do.”

It’s no wonder that turnspit dogs were unhappy. They labored in kitchens for hours with no break, sometimes tormented by meat hanging just outside their reach. 

And people weren't happy to have turnspit dogs in their homes. If you had a turnspit dog, it meant you couldn't afford to hire a servant to turn your meat spit. According to Jan Bondeson, author of Amazing Dogs, a Cabinet of Canine Curiosities, "It became a stigma of poverty to have a turnspit dog. They were ugly little dogs with a quite morose disposition, so nobody wanted to keep them as pets.”

The Training And Breeding Of Turnspit Dogs To Work In Kitchens Was Horrible – It Gave Them Intentional Physical Abnormalities

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Photo: Francis Butler/Wkimedia Commons/Public Domain

Turnspit dogs were bred for two qualities: first, they had to be able to run for hours without stopping. As Edward Jesse pointed out in his book on dogs, “A large solid piece of beef would take at least three hours before it was properly roasted.” If a dog couldn’t run for three hours without stopping, the turnspit dog might find a hot coal tossed into the wheel to motivate the poor animal. 

Second, turnspit dogs had to fit in the wheel. In order to breed a dog of the right size, people bred dogs with short, stubby legs and stout bodies. Zoologist John Edward Grey’s Note on the Varieties of Dogs (1869) even argued that the “short and more or less bandy legs of the turnspit” should be classified as “abnormalities or physical defects” that people bred into dogs to serve human purposes. Gray warned that some of these breed variations could be “carried to such a great extent as to be absolute deformities.”

Even Compared to Other Working Dogs, Turnspit Dogs Were Particularly Unhappy

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Photo: Conrad Gesner/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

Many dogs were bred to labor for humans, from hunting dogs to those trained to catch rats. But while other working dogs chased foxes in the woods or roamed the fields with shepherds, turnspit dogs were trapped in smoky kitchens day after day.

In 1846, Edward Jesse compared turnspit dogs to other working dogs, noting how much harder their lot really was:

“A pointer has pleasure in finding game, the terrier worries rats with considerable glee, the greyhound pursues hares with eagerness and delight, and the bull-dog even attacks bulls with the greatest energy, while the poor turnspit performs his task by compulsion, like a culprit on a tread-wheel, subject to scolding or beating if he stops a moment to rest his weary limbs, and is then kicked about the kitchen when the task is over.”