Turnspit

Canis vertigus

Last updated: April 14, 2023
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© Internet Archive Book Images / flickr – License / Original

The turnspit was a small breed, weighing between 15 to 25 pounds and measuring 8 to 12 inches tall.


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Turnspit Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Mammalia
Order
Carnivora
Family
Canidae
Genus
Canis
Scientific Name
Canis vertigus

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Turnspit Conservation Status

Turnspit Locations

Turnspit Locations

Turnspit Facts

Name Of Young
Puppy
Group Behavior
  • Pack
Fun Fact
The turnspit was a small breed, weighing between 15 to 25 pounds and measuring 8 to 12 inches tall.
Other Name(s)
Vernepator cur
Diet
Omnivore
Lifestyle
  • Diurnal
Common Name
Turnspit
Origin
United Kingdom

Turnspit Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Grey
  • Red
  • White
  • Multi-colored
Skin Type
Fur
Lifespan
9-12
Height
8 to 12 inches
Aggression
Low

Turnspit as a Pet:

General Health
Energy Level
Shedability
Trainability
Intelligence
Tendency to Chew
Size
Family and kid friendliness
Yappiness / Barking
Moderate
Separation Anxiety
Low
Preferred Temperature
Average climate
Exercise Needs
High
Friendly With Other Dogs
High
Pure bred cost to own
N/A
Dog group
Working
Male weight
15-25 lbs
Female weight
15-25 lbs

View all of the Turnspit images!



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The Turnspit (Canis vertigus) is an extinct breed that was a vital part of kitchens in Great Britain in the 16th century. This small dog wasn’t a beloved pet; it was a working dog specifically bred to run in a wooden wheel that turned a spit over a fire. These dogs were called the cooking dog, kitchen dog, or vernepator cur, and they were first mentioned in the first book ever written about dogs in 1576.

Turnspit History

Turnspit Dog

The turnspit was also known as vernepator cur, which is Latin for “the dog that turns the wheel.”

©Internet Archive Book Images / flickr – License

It’s no secret that the British love their roasts; every Sunday is a feast with family or friends, and there is always a beef, pork, or chicken roast on the table. This is a tradition past down from medieval times but with one difference. Instead of using an oven, the British used a turnspit dog. These tiny dogs were specifically bred to run on a wheel in the kitchen that turned the meat over an open flame, which cooks it evenly without burning it. That is why the turnspit was also known as vernepator cur, which is Latin for “the dog that turns the wheel.”

The wooden wheel (almost like a giant hamster wheel) was mounted on the wall in the kitchen near the fireplace. Once cooking commenced, the turnspit was hoisted into the wheel and started to run. There was a chain attached to the wheel that ran to the spit, and as the dog ran, the spit would turn. The wheel was high up and far from the fire because they didn’t want the dogs to get too hot and overheat. Unfortunately, these dogs were viewed as tools and not beloved family pets. The only day off these dogs had was Sunday, as they accompanied their masters to church. But not because their masters wanted to give them some fresh air, but rather as feet warmers in the cold church.

Before the turnspit was bred, the lowest-ranking kitchen staff member would turn the spit. It would usually be a young boy standing behind a bale of wet hay for protection from the heat. Unfortunately, they would have to stand there for hours, and their hands would often blister.

How Did Turnspits Become Extinct?

At the start of the 1750s, these tiny working dogs were all over Britain. However, a hundred years later, in 1850, they were almost non-existent. Then, by the 1900s, turnspits had disappeared altogether. Unfortunately, the reason for their demise was that spit-turning machines, named clock jacks, became available. At first, these machines were very expensive, so owning turnspits became a stigma of poverty. Furthermore, Brits found them ugly with a sullen disposition, so nobody wanted them as pets.

Turnspits in America

While turnspits were not as popular in the states, there is proof they did occur. For example, William Penn’s wife (the founder of Pennsylvania ) wrote to breeders in England requesting a wooden wheel for her turnspits. Furthermore, Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette reported advertisements for these dogs in Philadelphia. Additionally, they were present in the Statehouse Inn’s kitchen in Philly. But, they were primarily used in large hotels over America to turn roasts. However, the founder of the SPCA found out about turnspits in hotels in New York in the 1850s and was appalled by how they were treated. Thus, the SPCA was formed shortly after.

Turnspit Size and Weight

The turnspit was a small breed, weighing between 15 to 25 pounds and measuring 8 to 12 inches tall. In addition, they had short legs and long backs. In addition, they had stocky bodies, long snouts, and short coats. Furthermore, they had curly, upright tails that almost touched their backs. It was also common for these dogs to have bent legs because of the hours sent in the wheel. They came in several colors, including brown, red, gray, white, and a combination of multiple colors.

Turnspits Common Health Issues

Because these dogs weren’t considered pets, owners would not take much notice of them. Therefore, they probably didn’t take them to the vet when they were sick. So, there is very little information about what health issues plagued this breed. However, because they were so overworked, they developed large muscles and bent legs. In addition, they likely suffered from lung issues or breathing difficulties because of all the smoke they inhaled.

Life Expectancy

For a dog that didn’t get much attention, they had relatively long lifespans for their time. Turnspits could live as long as 9 to 12 years.

Turnspits Temperament

While these dogs were easy to train and extremely hard-working, they didn’t have the best temperament. But who could blame them? All they did was work and never received any love or affection. However, they were loyal dogs and highly intelligent. For example, when roasting a spit, they would take turns on the wheel without any supervision or instruction from their owners.

How to Take Care of Turnspits

As mentioned above, these dogs were seen more as kitchen aids than pets and treated as such. However, if they were around today, this is how owners should care for them:

Grooming

Due to their short coats, turnspits wouldn’t require much grooming. A good brush once a week would suffice. Furthermore, bathing a dog too often washes away its natural oils, causing dry skin and irritation. Therefore, only bathe them when necessary.

Training

Unfortunately, training was brutal for these hard-working dogs. Turnspits were confined to the wooden wheel for hours. They were forced to keep the wheel turning while smelling the meat roasting out of reach and thirsting for water. Because these dogs were so intelligent, they didn’t require much training. However, owners would throw red hot coals into the wheel when they wanted them to run faster.

Today, that cruel treatment wouldn’t stand, and it is one of the reasons why the SPCA exists. If they were still around, it would probably be really easy to train them with positive reinforcement.

Exercise

As turnspits were bred to have stamina, they would need plenty of exercise if they were around today. However,  back in the 16th century, they ran for hours and didn’t require any additional activity.

Dogs similar to the Turnspits

While the turnspit no longer exists, there are two very similar dogs who might even be descendants of these hard-working dogs. The Welsh corgi and Glen of Imaal Terrier share many characteristics with turnspits.

Welsh Corgi

The Welsh Corgi is notorious for being the Queen’s favorite dog breed. However, before they were Queen Elizabeth’s most prized possessions, they were bred as working dogs, herding sheep, cattle, and other livestock. Therefore, they are energetic dogs and require plenty of exercise to prevent them from gaining weight. Additionally, these dogs require a lot of mental stimulation because they are so intelligent. And if they don’t receive the attention they need, Welsh corgis will misbehave by chewing or digging.

Glen Imaal Terrier

The Glen of Imaal terrier is named after a valley in Ireland where they originated. This breed is strong and independent, which is why they were bred for fox and badger hunting. In addition, they would kill rodents in their homes, making them a very popular breed. These dogs are compact and easy to groom and adapt well to most homes as long as they get enough exercise and mental stimulation. Unfortunately, Glens are diggers thanks to their history of hunting small game. Additionally, they tend to bark a lot when sensing a stranger, making them incredible watchdogs.

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About the Author

Chanel Coetzee is a writer at A-Z Animals, primarily focusing on big cats, dogs, and travel. Chanel has been writing and researching about animals for over 10 years. She has also worked closely with big cats like lions, cheetahs, leopards, and tigers at a rescue and rehabilitation center in South Africa since 2009. As a resident of Cape Town, South Africa, Chanel enjoys beach walks with her Stafford bull terrier and traveling off the beaten path.

Turnspit FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What does turnspit mean?

The Turnspit (Canis vertigus) is an extinct breed that was a vital part of kitchens in Great Britain in the 16th century. This small dog wasn’t a beloved pet; it was a working dog specifically bred to run in a wooden wheel that turned a spit over a fire.

How did the turnspit dog go extinct?

by the 1900s, turnspits had disappeared altogether. Unfortunately, the reason for their demise was because spit-turning machines, named clock jacks, became available. At first, these machines were very expensive, so owning turnspits became a stigma of poverty. Furthermore, Brits found them ugly with a sullen disposition, so nobody wanted them as pets.

Were turnspit dogs real?

Yes, instead of using an oven, the British used a turnspit dog. These tiny dogs were specifically bred to run on a wheel in the kitchen that turned the meat over an open flame, which cooks it evenly without burning it.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turnspit_dog
  2. NPR, Available here: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/05/13/311127237/turnspit-dogs-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-vernepator-cur
  3. Modern Farmer, Available here: https://modernfarmer.com/2014/06/turnspit/

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