The Canis vertigus, or turnspit, was an essential part of every large kitchen in Britain in the 16th century. The small cooking canine was bred to run in a wheel that turned a roasting spit in cavernous kitchen fireplaces.
“They were referred to as the kitchen dog, the cooking dog or the vernepator cur“, says Caira Farrell, library and collections manager at the Kennel Club in London. “The very first mention of them is in 1576 in the first book on dogs ever written.”
When any meat was to be roasted, one of these dogs was hoisted into a wooden wheel mounted on the wall near the fireplace. The wheel was attached to a chain, which ran down to the spit. As the dog ran, like a hamster in a cage, the spit turned.
“Turnspit dogs were viewed as kitchen utensils, as pieces of machinery rather than as dogs,” says Bondeson. To train the dog to run faster, a glowing coal was thrown into the wheel.
“In the 1850s, the founder of the [Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] was appalled by the way the turnspit dogs were treated in the hotels of Manhattan,” says Weaver. “This bad treatment of dogs eventually led to the founding of the SPCA”.