The Dog That Manned the Meat: How the Turnspit Dog Was Bred to BBQ

In the Austin area we have a lot of dog lovers, so for Mutt’s Day we’re taking a look at a breed of dog that would be very useful during your barbeques. Like other canines, the Turnspit Dog was bred to perform a specific task, but their job took place in the kitchen, not necessarily outside.

Turnspit Dog

Characteristics of the Turnspit Dog

By the 1500s dogs were a part of everyday life in many areas of the world. In Europe there were dogs for hunting, herding, security, companionship and one for cooking. It’s not clear exactly when the Turnspit Dog made its first appearance, but in the late 16th century nearly all sizeable kitchens in Britain had a turnspit dog working the roasting pit.

Though they were oddly cute, these dogs were considered kitchen utensils not pets. Characteristics of the Turnspit Dog include:

  • Grey and white, black or reddish fur
  • Low bodied
  • Short legs that were crooked in front
  • Heavy head
  • Drooping ears
  • Strong and sturdy
  • Excellent stamina

Other names included the cooking dog, the kitchen dog canis vertigus or the vernepator cur, which means “the dog that turns the wheel” in Latin.

Turnspit Dog Working

How the Turnspit Dog Helped in the Kitchen

Roasts of all kinds have been very popular in Britain for hundreds and hundreds of years. Back in medieval times roasting was done over an open fire using a spit. A spit is simply a long rod that holds food over a fire while it’s being cooked. But the food on the spit must be constantly turned so that it cooks evenly. The solution – create a wheel that’s connected to the spit and breed a dog that can turn the wheel.

If you’ve ever seen a hamster on their wheel you can easily picture the Turnspit Dog at work. The wheel that the Turnspit would spin was typically hung up off the ground from the rafters or mounted to the wall. The dog was placed inside the wheel and as he walked or ran the wheel would turn. A chain ran from the wheel down to the spit so that the turning of the wheel would turn the spit as well.

Imagine having a Turnspit Dog turning the meat in your grill! Fortunately, newer designs like the Kamado Joe Grill don’t require constant turning like a spit. The Turnspit Dog did get a day off on Sundays. Instead of running the wheel people would take them to church and use them as foot warmers!

Turnspit Dogs weren’t exclusively used in Britain. There are a few accounts of the dogs being used in America for kitchen work in hotels and statehouses. In fact, the SPCA was formed in the 1850s because the founder couldn’t believe the way these little dogs were worked for hours on end.

Eventually spits were used less and less, and spit-turning machines were created, which replaced the Turnspit Dog. They were no longer needed to serve a specific purpose and were a stigma of poverty so the bred died out not long after the start of the 20th century.

If you’d like to see the extinct dog breed there is one known taxidermied Turnspit Dog named Whiskey that currently resides at the Abergavenny Museum in Wales. For those that would rather do the cooking themselves, swing on by Timbertown Austin and we’ll show you all the latest grilling apparatuses.


Image Sources: “Turnspitdog-1862” by H Weir – Illustrated Natural History, Rev JG Wood ; Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –; “Turnspit Dog Working” by Henry Wigstead – Henry Wigstead (1799) Remarks on a Tour to North and South Wales: in the year 1797, No, 40 Charing Cross, London: W. Wigstead (publisher), pp. 52–53. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

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