For the past 15,000 years or so, dogs have been bred by humans to fill a number of perceived (human) needs: to aid in hunting by locating, flushing out, or retrieving game animals, to help herd domestic animals, to pull carts and sleds and to guard and protect humans and their livestock. Specialised breeds have been developed for other kinds of uses as well; consider the 'lapdog' - originally bred not merely for companionship, but to attract fleas away from its owner.
Before the animal welfare issue became popular in the 19th Century, most people would have considered the notion of a 'companion animal' to be a frivolous, slightly unsavoury concept. Dogs were expected to 'earn their keep' by providing food for the larder as hunters, protecting the homestead as watchdogs or eliminating vermin and other competitors for the food supply. During most of human history, the idea that dogs had a right to exist apart from the needs of their human owners would have been regarded as rather eccentric.
Dogs were often bred to perform tasks which humans either could not do or else found too irksome. One of the more unusual examples of this kind was the turnspit dog, a small, hardy animal once numerous, but allowed to pass into extinction as a breed once its services were no longer required.
During the approximately three centuries in which the turnspit dog was employed, the plight of this little worker, largely unpitied, became a byword for pointless drudgery and unrewarded effort.
The Roast - A Labour-intensive Undertaking
During the Middle Ages, the job of turnspit (turning the handle that rotated a roast or joint so that it cooked evenly over a fire) was given to the lowliest male kitchen servant. Obviously what was called for was a strong arm and a high boredom threshold. Turnspits got a reputation for drunkenness on the job.
In Tudor times, a mechanical device was invented, whereby the spit was attached to a wheel in a cage in which a small dog ran, turning the spit. Since the roast might take as long as three hours to cook, the dog needed strong legs and a lot of stamina.
The earliest mention of a specific breed of turnspit dog is from a list in 1576. Carolus Linnaeus mentions turnspits as a breed in 1756, mentioning long and short-haired varieties. Darwin mentions their short legs as an example in genetics.
In Victorian times, a purely mechanical device for turning spits replaced the treadmill principle and the turnspit dog was no longer needed. By the late 19th Century, writers were referring to the custom of using dogs to turn roasts as a quaint custom of olden times and the dog ceased to be bred.
The Turnspit Breed
To get an idea of the turnspit breed, we mostly have to rely on chance references by contemporary writers, who generally describe the dogs as short in the shoulder but long in the body, with crooked or bandy legs, a deep chest and strong back legs. From 18th Century references, they would appear to have been bred from badger-hunting dogs and to have been a kind of terrier.
Some claim that the dogs were ugly, but that may have been the result of poor grooming or simply a statement of the aesthetics of the time. The body of Whiskey, the last known turnspit dog, is preserved in the Abergavenny Museum in Wales. She appears to have been rather pretty.
Although most sources agree that the turnspit breed died out, or was bred back into the general dog population after its household function was no longer in demand, fanciers of the Glen of Imaal terrier lay claim to the title of turnspit for their Wicklow, Ireland, breed, which is currently being revived as a companion animal.
A Dog's Life
The lot of the turnspit dog, condemned to run for hours inside a wheel, unable to share in the feast it was helping to prepare and spurred on by blows and threats, struck many people as an example of futility and suffering, hence the expression 'a dog's life'.
In many kitchens (especially at inns) where a roast or joint might be needed every day, two dogs were employed on a one-on, one-off basis. Apparently, the dogs knew which days were 'their' days, from which we get the saying that 'every dog has his day'.
There are anecdotes, perhaps apocryphal, of dogs who, when called upon to perform on their 'off day' because the dog whose day it was went missing, chased down their defaulting partner and forced him into the kitchen, showing a keen sense of worker's rights.
Another story involves the secondary vocation of the turnspit dog. It seems people took them to church to serve as foot-warmers during long winter sermons. During one such service in Bath, the Bishop of Gloucester is said to have preached on the subject of 'Ezekiel saw the wheel'. At the mention of the word 'wheel', all the dogs ran for the door.
In his 1869 Book of Days, Robert Chambers tells an anecdote about a ship's captain in the 18th Century who, angry with the citizens of Bristol for their lack of hospitality, sent his men out one night to steal all the turnspit dogs in town. When the meat crisis became acute, the townspeople made peace and the dogs were returned.
'With eagerness he still does forward tend,
Like Sisyphus, whose journey has no end.'
- anonymous poem, Upon a dog called Fuddle, turnspit at the Popinjay, in Norwich
Although the day of the 'canine-powered rotisserie' is over and modern pet owners can pat themselves on the collective back for living in more enlightened times, the brief, sad history of the turnspit dog serves as a reminder of the unpleasant places a utilitarian view of nature can take the human race.
'Everything is interesting, but everything alive is endearing.'