For centuries, impoverished people relied on dog labor to cook their food. Small, short-legged dogs were forced to run in a wheel for hours on end to cook meat on a spit. On occasion, owners would even toss a hot coal in the wheel to make the dogs run faster.
Dogs bred for this purpose were called turnspit dogs, and unlike their fellow working dog breeds, they didn’t run outside in the fresh air. These dogs and their descendants were forced to cook meat from the Middle Ages until they were replaced by modern machines in the 1900s.
The turnspit dog breed was designed to fit in a wheel and run for hours, all to save a person the trouble of turning a roasting spit. People have been breeding and abusing dogs for centuries – as the history of the bulldog demonstrates – and turnspit dogs were no exception.
An English kitchen from the 1500s was typically composed of an open hearth, which occupied nearly one wall of the room, and an iron cauldron or kettle which hung over the fire to heat water. A spit for roasting meat was usually turning int the hearth, and above it a large wheel spun in place. This wheel 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 not until the 1500s did people decide to outsource the exhausting labor of cooking to an animal: the turnspit dog.
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.”
Their source of unhappiness was hardly a mystery; they were forced to labor in kitchens for hours on end, sometimes tormented by meat hanging just outside their reach.
Despite the supposed convenience – albeit unethical – their labor allowed, most people weren't happy to have turnspit dogs in their homes. A family with a turnspit dog couldn't afford to hire a servant to turn their 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.”
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 them.
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.”
Many dogs were bred to labor for humans, from hunting dogs to those trained as rat-catchers. 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 more strenuous their task 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.”