Back to the Future. Can an “extinct” breed reveal our progress?

by Susi on April 2, 2012

in Crufts, Glen of Imaal Terrier, purebred dogs, Turnspit dog

Post image for Back to the Future. Can an “extinct” breed reveal our progress?

I did some thinking during a bike ride this week, something I often do to distract me from the fact that I’m wearing Lycra bicycle shorts in public.  My thoughts range from prayer (Please God, keep me upright on these skinny tires) to casual observations that convince me that people are laughing at me for wearing Lycra bicycle shorts in public.

Sometimes I think about new topics for this blog, and sometimes I think about comments made to an old one. By the time I was done with my ride, I’d thought of a way to combine both.

My thoughts stemmed from a blog I recently wrote about Crufts, an article which, to my astonishment, generated nearly 250 comments.   Most were positive endorsements of what I’d written, but some offered a dimmer view of my opinion. I could tell early on when a response wasn’t going to go my way when it used terms like “dog abuser” or “vile” to describe me.  One comment set the tone right out of the gate by asking, “What gives you the right to manipulate an entire species genetics?” while another charged that the creators of the today’s purebred dogs would be horrified to see what we’d done to their breeds.

Their sentiments were simple enough: Modern breeders in the fancy have manipulated the genetics of purebred dogs simply to win dog shows, often to the breed’s detriment.

I concede that breeders have been manipulating the gene pool of purebred dogs for a very long time, but I also believe that it’s how responsible breeders have improved most of them. Inasmuch as we’ve done this to create a better “mousetrap” (or retriever, sheepherder or water dog), today’s responsible breeder has also enhanced the odds for their dogs to live a longer and healthier life.  In contrast to the opinions of the people who wrote disparagingly of my views, I believe that in many instances, modern breeders have worked hard to undo the damage done by those early breeders.

I use the Turnspit Dog as an example, but only hypothetically since the breed is now extinct.

Or is it?

The Turnspit Dog, also called the Turnspete, Kitchen or Cooking Dog, was a sturdy, short-legged, long-bodied breed that was developed to run inside a small cage called a turnspit that resembled a hamster wheel. As the dog ran, it turned a piece of meat “rotisserie style.” Between the 17th and early 19th century, most large farms and houses in the UK, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales used Turnspit Dogs, and historical records reveal that the dog was also used in America’s earliest days; The innkeeper at the City tavern in Philadelphia imported several Turnspit dogs from England, while Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette included advertisements for wheels and Turnspit dogs for sale.

It was a miserable life for the dog; The wheel, from which there was no escape, was typically suspended from the ceiling or wall near an oppressively hot fireplace. A rope or chain led from the dog wheel to the spit,and it was the dog’s constant motion that made it rotate at a steady pace. Sometimes a hot coal was tossed into the wheel to “encourage” the dog to speed up.  Consider that a large roast could take over three hours to cook! If the poor dog stopped to catch its breath, the meat stopped turning and an angry cook’s fury would turn to the dog. Even if two dogs worked in tandem or in shifts (leading to the expression, “Every dog has its day”), the work took a toll on the dogs.

Interior of the George Inn in Laycock, near Chippenham in Wiltshire. Built in 1361, the inn is famous for it's dogwheel, connected to a spit on the open fire

It’s doubtful that early breeders much cared if their dogs were comfortable or not. Turnspit Dogs were regarded as household machines and soundness didn’t factor into their breeding. All the breeders cared about was that the dog have short legs so it would fit inside the wheel, a long body so it could move more of the wheel at a time, and the capacity to keep running for considerable lengths of time.

'Whiskey' is the last surviving specimen of a turnspit dog, albeit stuffed. The breed appears to have died out with the advent of mechanisation in the kitchen “Whiskey” is on display at the Abergavenny Museum

Dr. Cauis, author of the 1576 piece, Of English Dogges, called the dogs “mongrels” that evolved into a distinct breed. In “Anecdotes of Dogs,” Edward Jesse described them as “long-bodied, crooked legged and ugly dogs with a suspicious, unhappy look about them.” Nineteenth century physician, Erasmus Wilson recorded seeing several Turnspits during a visit to Germany and he described one in detail: “His coat was a blueish grey, his body remarkably long,…his shoulders and fore legs strong, and haunches and hind legs small, so small, in fact, to appear too weak to support him.”

As a breed, Turnspits became largely extinct by the late 1800’s, but had it lived, people like the ones who wrote to me disparagingly are convinced that modern breeders would have “ruined” it. Today’s breeder would have ruined the crooked front legs, ruined the hobbled and weak rear legs, ruined the ears that were floppy. No, upright. Well, who can say since both were attributed to Turnspits.

A turnspit wheel. Could you see YOUR dog in this for hours at a time?

Just for grins, let’s say the breed HAD survived. What would today’s responsible breeder do with it?  I’d lay odds that they’d start with the breed’s angulation. They know that a dog with proper layback of shoulder, and a balanced, corresponding rear improves the dog’s efficiency of movement. This increases its stamina which, in the end, gives the dog a greater chance at a longer life lived free of pain.

But wait. We do have among us a dog that’s a living example of what the Turnspit might look like had it survived. It’s called the Glen of Imaal Terrier which is regarded as a descendent of the Turnspit dog.   From the Glen of Imaal Club of America’s web site: “According to legend, the Glen of Imaal also has a unique task which it was expressly designed for: it was a turnspit dog. The turnspit was a large wheel which, when paddled by the dog, would turn the spit over the hearth–a canine-propelled rotisserie, if you will. The Glen’s highly individualized bowed front legs and powerful hindquarters were ideally suited for this.”

Let’s review. Erasmus Wilson described the Turnspit dog as having hind legs as being too small and weak to support the dog. But the Glen of Imaal Club of America describes the breed it acknowledges as a descendant of the Turnspit dog as having, “powerful hindquarters.”  Clearly, something happened with those hindquarters between the Turnspit Dog and its descendent, the Glen of Imaal Terrier.  Gasp. Could it be that modern breeders IMPROVED the breed? Could it be that today’s breeder improved those hindquarters to the extent that the dog could do the job for which it was bred better?

A rendering of the old Turnspit Dog

Today's Glen of Imaal Terrier

And yes. That’s sarcasm.

Thank GOD there is no longer a call for Turnspit dogs – it was a horrific life for a dog.  Sadly, we live in a world where markets demand supply, and if a dollar is to be made for a Turnspit dog even in the year 2012, there would be a breeder to supply the puppies to fill it. Those who would supply these dogs are not what I regard as responsible breeders.

The truth is that there are breeders, and then there are breeders, and maybe that’s fodder for another blog. What I want to suggest is that the creators of our breeds weren’t necessarily better than today’s counterparts.  They wouldn’t be horrified by what we did to it, they would be more apt to marvel at our progress. Put another way, if you’re going to cast stones, you’d better know your history.



{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Charlee Helms April 2, 2012 at 10:24 pm

Too cool, I love getting educated about dogs. I hadn’t heard of this one. Being as I’m in the long, low scent hounds, take a look at some of the old Basset and Dachshund prints. I think you’ll see definite improvement there from the original dogs, and in a breed that is not extinct.


Laura Perkinson April 2, 2012 at 11:21 pm

Excellent article. I learned something new today.


Lenna Hanna-O'Neill April 2, 2012 at 11:32 pm

Well done, as usual! 🙂


Susi April 3, 2012 at 10:54 am

Thanks, Lenna, you spoil me!


Jinnie April 3, 2012 at 12:18 pm

I thank you for your always thoughtful blog entries. Although the thought of you in bike shorts is also so thought provoking…………..


Susi April 4, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Save yourself, Jinnie. The mental imagery of my bike shorts will corrode your brain.


Liz Gay April 4, 2012 at 1:06 am

The Glen of Imaal Terrier as a turnspit dog is one of the great legends of the breed, it has loads of them!


Susi April 4, 2012 at 1:19 pm

I’ve come to really like this little breed, Liz, and as you said, it has such a rich history.


Lynn Zagarella April 16, 2012 at 11:38 am

Me too, me too! I never knew… And what an interesting twist on an old idea to make us see things in a new light Susi. Yes, there are breeders and there are Breeders, and there are even Show Breeders. But the Show Breeders I most admire are the ones who constantly work to juggle health, temperament and structure always keeping in mind the purpose of their breed and their Breed Standard. These are the unsung heroes who really do toil for decades to “improve” their breeds! Thanks for what you do!


Susi April 18, 2012 at 8:51 am

Thanks for replying, Lynn! Like you, I had never known about Turnspit Dogs and read their history with a mixture of horror, pity and amazement.


Rob June 18, 2013 at 3:23 pm

I think my Glen would make me buy one of these if he could read. Of course he’d insist on being the taste tester in return for the work. He loves to run and I’ve never seen another dog give his all while running as he does. On every step he gives a grunt like a karate practitioner. Is this normal for the breed? We have our own mountain and he likes to sprint until he practically falls down, rest for a few minutes, then do it again. Is this odd or normal?


Susi June 18, 2013 at 3:37 pm

Honestly, Rob,I don’t know since I’ve never lived with the breed. I love the sound of his enthusiasm, however. If you’d like, I can ask around?


Mugwort November 26, 2014 at 10:06 am

I didn’t read your post on “Cruft” the UK dog show. Found this article when I Googled Turnspitdog and G.O.I.T. Throught what you wrote very interesting, informative and mostly thought provoking. I refer to your argument that sometimes breeding can harm a breed. OTOH it seemed to help the Glen of Imaal Terrier. This seems to be especially with the sturdy hind legs vs the TSD’s spindly back legs. However even so I prefer the United Kennel Club since their philosophy is the whole dog. IOW they don’t believe in extreme breeding This is meant as a general statement for every dog breed. I think the AKC is so concerned on looks that they encourage dogs with too short legs with back problems, ( dachshunds, bassets, etc) or too short snoots producing breathing difficulties. (Some Bully breeds).


Susi November 26, 2014 at 10:51 am

Thanks for writing, Mugwort. A point of clarification: Unlike the the Kennel Club which, as far as I know, owns the breed standards, in the United States, the breed clubs own their own standards, not the AKC and accordingly, the language spelling out a breed standard is crafted by those breed clubs. It’s further interpreted by breeders, but in my view, it’s show judges and an ignorant public that can shape a breed into the extremes to which you refer. There’s an old expression: Judges are the architects and breeders are the builders of a breed. Personally, I’d like to see more ribbons denied in the show ring. Few people (in the fancy, anyway) will breed for a look that consistently loses at a dog show, and it wouldn’t take long for the message to be made that unsound dogs will lose every time. I’d also like a better educated public that can’t be duped into buying, say, a “teacup” (fill in the breed), but as long as there’s a dollar to be made, substandard breeders will breed to make it. Long story short, a GOOD breeder on either side of “the Pond,” breeds for the whole dog. Dog shows and ethical breeders aren’t to blame (again, in my view) for unsound dogs. Substandard,unscrupulous breeders, timid judges and and an ignorant public are.


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