The Fascinating History of the Turnspit Dog Dog Breed

Dogs have been man’s best friend for centuries, and throughout history, many breeds have served different roles. The turnspit dog is one such breed, with an intriguing history that dates back to medieval times. They were bred for the specific purpose of turning spits in kitchens, a skilled task that was essential in helping households cook roast meat. In this article, we explore the fascinating history of the turnspit dog breed, examining their origins, impact on society, decline, and efforts to preserve their legacy today.

Origins of the Turnspit Dog

The actual origin of the turnspit dog breed is a mystery, but it is believed to have originated in Europe during the medieval period. It is thought to be a cross between small terriers and spaniels, with traces of other breeds mixed in. Due to the size, shape, and strength of the breed, they were the perfect fit for running on the wheel inside the kitchen fireplace.

The Role of Turnspit Dogs in Medieval Kitchens

The turnspit dog’s primary role was to turn the spit roast, which was a crucial task in kitchens during the medieval period. It required the dogs to run inside the wheel for hours, ensuring the meat cooked evenly and thoroughly. The dogs were also trained to keep the fire burning by fanning it with their tails. Their small size and agility made them an excellent fit for this specific task.

Turnspit dogs were an essential part of the kitchen staff, and they were highly valued for their ability to perform their duties. They were trained from a young age, and their training involved running on the wheel for hours on end. The dogs were also taught to be obedient and to follow commands, which was crucial in the kitchen environment.

As the use of spit roasting declined, so did the need for turnspit dogs in the kitchen. The breed almost became extinct, but a few dedicated breeders kept the breed alive, and it is now recognized by the Kennel Club as a vulnerable native breed.

Breeding and Physical Characteristics

The turnspit dog is a small, short-legged breed with a muscular body that enables it to run in the wheel for hours. They have flat skulls and broad, powerful jaws, which allowed them to hold onto the spit and turn it with their teeth. As the breed evolved, they developed longer backs and shorter legs, enhancing their running ability. However, over time, breeding practices became more focused on their ability to perform in the kitchen, leading to genetic problems such as spinal deformities.

Despite their small size, turnspit dogs are incredibly strong and agile. They have a thick, wiry coat that protects them from the heat of the fireplace and the sparks from the fire. Their coat is also waterproof, which made them suitable for working in damp and humid environments.

Turnspit dogs were also known for their loyalty and affectionate nature. They were often kept as pets by the kitchen staff, and they were known to be excellent with children. The breed was also used for hunting small game, such as rats and mice, which were often found in the kitchen.

Overall, the turnspit dog is a unique and fascinating breed with a rich history. Although they are no longer used in the kitchen, they are still valued for their loyalty and affectionate nature.

The Turnspit Dog’s Impact on Society

The turnspit dog breed had a profound impact on society. Their role in kitchens was essential, helping households cook meat evenly and thoroughly. The dogs were also used as a status symbol, with wealthier households owning more dogs, and some dogs were even given as gifts for nobility. However, their significance in society extended beyond the kitchen.

The Turnspit Dog in Literature and Art

The turnspit dog is a fascinating breed that has captured the attention of many writers and artists throughout history. In literature, they feature in works such as Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield,” where one is described as “an old-fashioned, round-headed brass or copper-colored dog.” The breed also appears in several works of art, such as “The Turnspit Dog,” a painting by Francis Wheatley.

Interestingly, the turnspit dog was not only depicted in high art but also in popular culture. The breed was often used as a subject for humorous postcards and advertisements, highlighting their unique appearance and role in the kitchen.

The Turnspit Dog and Social Class

During medieval times, the number of turnspit dogs a household owned reflected their social status. Wealthier households would have more dogs, while poorer households would have none. The association with wealth was due to the fact that owning a turnspit dog meant that the household had the resources to cook meat regularly.

However, the turnspit dog’s role in society was not limited to the wealthy. In fact, many turnspit dogs were owned by inns and taverns, where they were used to roast meat for customers. This allowed for a consistent and efficient cooking process, ensuring that every customer received a well-cooked meal.

The Turnspit Dog’s Physical Characteristics

The turnspit dog’s unique appearance was due to their specific role in the kitchen. They were bred to be small and low to the ground, with short legs and a long body. This allowed them to easily fit into the small wheels that turned the spit, which was used to rotate meat over an open fire.

The breed was also known for their high energy levels and stamina, as they would often run for hours on the wheel without stopping. This made them ideal for their role in the kitchen, as they could keep the spit turning consistently for hours on end.

The Decline of the Turnspit Dog

Despite their once-important role in society, the turnspit dog began to decline in popularity in the 19th century. This was due to the invention of mechanical spit turners, which made the dogs’ role in the kitchen obsolete.

As their usefulness in the kitchen declined, the breed’s popularity also waned. In fact, by the mid-20th century, the turnspit dog was almost extinct. However, due to the efforts of dedicated breeders, the turnspit dog has made a comeback in recent years, with a small but dedicated following of enthusiasts.

The turnspit dog’s impact on society may have been small in the grand scheme of things, but their unique role in the kitchen and their fascinating history make them an important part of our cultural heritage.

The Decline of the Turnspit Dog Breed

The turnspit dog breed continued to be utilized in kitchens until the mid-1800s, when technological advancements such as the roasting jack and steam-powered machinery made their role obsolete. As kitchens became more advanced, the demand for turnspit dogs dwindled.

Technological Advancements and Changing Roles

The development of the roasting jack, which was a mechanical device that turned the spit, meant that the role of the turnspit dog was no longer needed. Additionally, as kitchens became more advanced, turning the spit became less necessary, and so their role dwindled. Without the demand for their services, the breed’s population decreased, leading to their decline.

The Turnspit Dog’s Legacy in Modern Breeds

Although the breed itself is no longer used, it still has a lasting impact on modern dog breeds. The turnspit dog’s genetic traits have been inherited by several modern dog breeds, such as the Welsh Corgi, which also has short legs and a long back, enabling it to move quickly in tight spaces. Additionally, the breed’s tenacity and loyalty are traits that are admired in many breeds today.

Efforts to Preserve the Turnspit Dog’s History

Despite the breed’s decline, efforts are being made to preserve the turnspit dog’s legacy and history.

Historical Records and Documentation

Historical records and documents provide an insight into the role of the turnspit dog in kitchens and society during medieval times. They help to preserve the breed’s history and significance, enabling future generations to learn about the breed’s impact on society.

Turnspit Dog Memorials and Exhibits

Memorials and exhibits dedicated to the turnspit dog breed are also being created to honor their unique history. The Turner’s House, a historic home in London, has created an exhibit dedicated to the turnspit dog, showcasing the breed’s role in society and its impact on modern dog breeds.


The history of the turnspit dog breed is a remarkable story that captures our imagination and provides an insight into medieval kitchens and society. While the breed is no longer with us, their legacy remains, influencing modern dog breeds and capturing the attention of writers and artists throughout history. Efforts to preserve their history and legacy ensure that the breed’s fascinating story will continue to be shared for generations to come.

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