Myth or Fact: were Glen of Imaal Terriers turnspit dogs?

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When you go to a dog show, you’re likely to hear the question: were Glens turnspit dogs? What is myth and what is fact?

The notion of a turnspit dog was first introduced by Dr. Johannes Caius in his classification written in Latin (circa 1536). A turnspit dog is said to have helped chefs and cooks rotate large cuts of roasting meat by running on a wheel. It was also known as the Kitchen Dog, the Cooking Dog, the Underdog, or the Vernepator. [Wikipedia]

While this type of working dogs has been mentioned a few times in history, there’s no reference to a particular breed. They were simply called Turnspit dogs. For example, The Illustrated Natural History (Mammalia) published in 1853 showed the conformation of a Turnspit Dog, not a specific breed. Even more, the breed is said to have been lost because it was so common that no records of it were effectively kept.

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“… if there was ever a dog suited for a turnspit, the Glen would take the crown.”

We can say it’s unclear to this day if the concept describes a Glen of Imaal dog or if other canine mixtures were used to turn the spit roasts.

If we dig deeper—no pun intended—we seem to find more about these practical contraptions. In the old days, people used to roast poultry and joints of meat across an open fire using a horizontal metal rod they called a spit. It took several hours to turn the spit so that the meat would cook slowly. But the process was quite boring. So, instead of using a human servant, someone thought of putting dogs’ skills to a good use. It was more fun for the dogs! That’s how large homes, pubs, and hotels introduced treadmills for the dog-workers with running tracks connected by cable to the fireplace top edge.

Wading through the myth, there’s one indisputable fact. To run inside the turnspit wheel, a dog must have had very short legs and relatively long body. Otherwise, he could not have run underneath the hub of the turnspit wheel. Given Glens’ appearance, it doesn’t seem impossible for them to have fulfilled such task. But the question isn’t whether Glens could have worked a turnspit wheel, rather how likely it was that this contraption was commonly used at any time in Irish History.

On the other hand, if there was ever a dog suited for a turnspit, the Glen would take the crown. With his short, strong legs, and willingness to help, there couldn’t be a better candidate for the job. Nonetheless, there’s little evidence linking Glens to such treadmill-like machines.

So, who’s to say what’s fact and myth? Better leave the story to history and enjoy Glens with their long and colorful past. If their ability to help humans have indeed been cherished throughout the centuries, let’s just keep enjoying them.


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