Humankind has used dogs in many different ways in history. It is even possible that dog domestication had its roots in their abilities as guards: To have some dogs around that would alert you if dangerous predators or hostile tribes were approaching was worth sharing some leftovers.
Regardless of how dog domestication happened, the number of different services that dogs offer is very wide: guard, hunting, drug fight, mountain rescue, emotional support and so on. Other services have been less useful for society but they were also part of history such as their participation in wars, fights, prisoner mutilation and also the one that we will discuss in this article which I would call as the hamster wheel dogs or turnspit dogs.
Let’s travel to XVI century’s England, at that time, beef was really appreciated and hence highly valued. As a priced good, it had to be properly cooked. According to the testimony of the Swedish naturalist Pehr Kalm’s, who traveled the country at that time, the devotion that English had for beef was unmatched by any other people. The taverns acquired big meat pieces to be spun grilled and offered to customers. Also, the parties hold by the nobility required such pieces of beef.
Grilling beef is a slow process, hard, as it requires the cook to spend long hours by the fire. It also requires to spin the piece so that it is homogeneously done. Chronicles tell us that at the beginning taverns employed young kids to do the job, but it was too tough, to tiring, in a smoked atmosphere and with lots of burns in the hands to get a few pennies at the end of the day
The solution that was found at the time was a mechanism that allowed to spin the meat automatically. As engines hadn’t been yet invented, the solution they found was to develop a hollow wheel, where a small dog could be introduced. The animal was forced to run in the wheel, like a hamster, so that the spinning force was transferred by some welts to the spit with the beef piece.
Fig 1: Dog running in a wheel. The belts make the beef spin so that it was cooked homogeneously
The work was very hard, it forced the dog to run for hours, in a foggy, hot, unhealthy kitchen. If the tavern was successful and it opened for many hours, they needed two dogs to work on shifts. If the dog quitted and stopped a burning coal was thrown at its paws so that the running started again.
Fig 2: The only existing turnspit dog. Stuffed in a museum
The breed of turnspit dogs was mentioned in 1576 in one of the first books ever written about dogs. Even Shakespeare mentions them in his Comedy of errors. Here the English author describes a character as “one of those curtailed dog fit only to run in a wheel”. This clearly shows what a miserable life those dogs had to endure.
Even Linneus, the father of taxonomy, called them Canis vertigus or dizzy dogs, because of their work, always spinning a wheel. Turnspit dogs were also used in mills and even a French inventor wanted to build a sewing machine based on them.
This cooking system was very common in England from XVI to the early XX centuries. They were also somehow common in the US and Germany. When power started to arrive, the job for turnspit dogs was over and today this breed is extinct, although some of those genes seem to be present in the Welsh Corgi as well as in some terrier lines.
Fig 3: A Welsh Corgi, it is believed that this breed has some genes from the turnspit dogs.
See the short legs, clear example of chondrodysplasia or dwarfism.
Even Darwin mention the turnspit dogs as an example of how men can intervene in the selection of animals for a given, specific use.
Turnspit dogs must be small to fit into the wheels. So having short legs was a must. Short legs were also an important feature for other jobs such as hunting rodents or ferrets in their dens. That’s why several short-legged breeds were developed such as the Welsh Corgi, the Dachshund, the Basset hound or the Pekinges. This is an example of how a recessive mutation, common to all these breeds, originated in a common ancestor and was selected and kept in a domestic population. In this case, the gen of chondrodysplasia or dwarfism makes the bones to calcify earlier in life. Once calcified, growth stops and the animals keep their legs short.
But running in a wheel was not the only job of turnspit dogs. On Sundays, the turnspit dogs had to go to church. To heat he feet of their owners in the cold, humid churches.
There is an amusing anecdote related to this: when a priest giving sermon in a local church in Bath, made the reference to a verse in the Bible that said it was then that Ezekiel saw the wheel… upon hearing the word wheel all the turnspit dogs escaped from under the feet of their owners and made a run for the door, as they were trained to respond to the word “wheel”.
Although some nobles kept some turnspit dogs as pets –the queen Elisabeth had three- once electric power became a reality this breed was no longer useful and it was lost. Today we can find a few pictures and a stuffed turnspit dog in the Abergavenny museum, in Wales.
So pitiful were those dogs that even years after their extinction they arouse feelings of sympathy. They were the main characters in a bestselling tale published in the 50s.
Fig 4: Tale written in the 50s. A memoir of the miserable lives of turnspit dogs
David J. Eveleigh (1990) ‘Put down to a clear bright fire’: The English Tradition of Open-Fire Roasting, Folk Life, 29:1, 5-18
Stanley Coren. The pawprints of history. Ed Atria 2003
Juliette Cunliffe. The Encyclopedia of dogs. Parragon publishing 2003
Heidi G. Parker. An Expressed Fgf4 Retrogene Is Associated with Breed-Defining Chondrodysplasia in Domestic Dogs. Science. 2009 Aug 21; 325(5943): 995–998.