Turnspit Dogs: The Elizabethan Kitchen Gadget Bred to Cook Meat

By: Cristen Conger  | 
turnspit dogs
Turnspit dogs had gray and white fur and drooping ears. They also were crooked legged, but that didn't stop cooks from forcing them to run all day long. Photos.com/Getty Images

During the 16th century, dogs were more than just companions. There was a dog breed for nearly everything: herding sheep, tracking wild game and even warming up cold laps on chilly days.

But in Wales, England, there was a dog that found a role as the kitchen dog in large and small homes. It was known as the turnspit dog or spit dog. They were long and stocky and had short legs and their job was to turn the wooden wheel on the roasting spit in the hearth.


What Is a Turnspit Dog?

Before the arrival of the automated roasting spit, open fire roasting meant the wooden cooking wheel had to be cranked continually by hand for evenly cooked meat. That is until someone figured out that you could make a dog do it. The small cooking dog was bred to run on a wheel that turned the roasting spit. That's how the turnspit dog got its name, vernepator cur, which is Latin for "the dog that turns the wheel."

This canine innovation was hailed as a major life improvement. The very first mention of the turnspit dog was in 1576 in the book "Of English Dogs" the first book about dogs.


Turnspit Dogs as Working Dogs

turnspit dogs
Turnspit dogs were essential for roasting meat in most Elizabethan-era kitchens. Photos.com/Getty Images

The turnspit dog wasn't just popular in Great Britain. Their breeding continued for a couple of centuries, and they did make the trek from Great Britain to the United States, since they were handy for more than just roasting meat.

As Stanley Coren explains in "The Pawprints of History: Dogs and the Course of Human Events," the turnspit dog was used for other domestic tasks, including churning butter, pressing fruits, pumping water and milling grain.


But according to NPR, the turnspit dog wasn't as popular in the United States as it was in Great Britain. There are a few records of turnspit dogs for sale, though, including in Benjamin Franklin's Pennsylvania Gazette.

But working conditions, especially in kitchens, weren't so great for the dogs. Many dogs were forced to run next to the blazing hot spit roast for hours without access to water. Cooks might even throw hot coals onto the wooden wheel to enliven the little dogs' feet. This was all to ensure their meat would cook evenly.

Because it was so labor-intensive, many turnspit dogs would work in pairs, trading off on the meat-spinning hamster wheel, and some think that dreadful tag-team is origin of the phrase "every dog has his day."

Even on Sundays, the amazing dogs didn't get a break as their owners often took them to church to serve as foot warmers.


What Happened to Turnspit Dogs?

In 1750 there were turnspit dogs everywhere in Great Britain. But by 1850 they were hard to find. By 1900 they had all but disappeared mostly because of the invention of spit-powered machines called clock jacks.

The new technology ultimately unleashed turnspits and led to the breed's extinction. With the invention of these cheap spit turning machines, the small dogs just weren't needed for roasting meat anymore.


Owning a turnspit dog after 1850 actually became a sign of poverty, Jan Bondeson told NPR. She's author of author of "Amazing Dogs, a Cabinet of Canine Curiosities." Turnspits were ugly little dogs so nobody wanted to keep them as pets.

turnspit dogs
Owning a turnspit dog after 1850 became a sign of poverty.
Photos.com/Getty Images


Where Is the Turnspit Dog Today?

Today the turnspit dog is extinct. The only one that "survives" is in a hunting lodge in an ancient Norman castle in Abergavenny, Wales. Granted this dog isn't a small cooking canine; she's a taxidermied turnspit dog named Whiskey, and she's in a glass case and not on in front of an open fire. Her closest dog relative is likely the Welsh corgi, the pampered pooch of the late Queen Elizabeth II.