Rachel Laudan

The Dog: The Cook’s Little Helper

Perusing the Sunday paper, I came across a list of gifts for pet owners.  I was mildly surprised by the pedometer that measured how many steps your dog had taken and how many calories it had consumed. But it was the dog treadmill, for hundreds of dollars, that really set me back.  I’d somehow missed that the sales of these have been soaring as owners try to get their pets into shape.

Pet exercise

A doggie treadmill reduced from $739 to $639

It’s not however a new development.  Early in the twentieth century the Sears catalog advertised dog treadmills for $15, very roughly about $300 in present day terms.

Dog turning butter churn

A dog “working his passage” on a treadmill to work a butter churn in an early twentieth-century Sears catalog.

These were all business, though.  The treadmills designed so that a dog (or a sheep or a goat) could do the hard work of churning butter. I must admit I have a hard time imagining getting a goat to work a treadmill but perhaps you could.

Thinking back to my posts on butter churning of a couple of weeks ago, I don’t have such a hard time imaging a woman far from town, far from electricity, with a pile of clothes to be washed by hand, a baby to be changed, and firewood to be hauled, churning her butter and thinking wistfully of the ad in the Sears catalog that reached even the remotest areas.

Churning butter

Churning butter

Even when electricity arrived on the farm, churning continued to be a chore.  According to the Maine Memory Network, Maytag offered a combined washing machine/butter churn in 1942.

Maytag Washing Machine with Butter churn attachment

Maytag Washing Machine with butter churn attachment

Or you could follow the instructions in Popular Mechanics and do it yourself.

How to turn your washing machine into a butter churn. Popular Mechanics. 1950

How to turn your washing machine into a butter churn. Popular Mechanics. 1950

So perhaps the dog was not such a bad idea at all. Judging by the number of images of dog treadmills on the web, there were either a lot of wishful thinkers or the dogs were pretty good workers. Not this one slacking off, though.

Nicholas Potter's "Enterprise Dog Power" Treadmill (1881) for powering butter churns

Nicholas Potter’s “Enterprise Dog Power” Treadmill (1881) for powering butter churns

And it wasn’t just in the US.  Here is one of a number of images of dog treadmills for churning butter in Belgium (thanks Nick Trachet).  They look much more serious than the American ones, perhaps because the flat areas of the country did not lend themselves to the watermills that scattered the American landscape and that were also used to power butter churning.

Belgian dog treadmill for churning butter

Belgian dog treadmill for churning butter

And of course, this was not the first time the dog had provided power in the kitchen.  In the past it had been used to run on a wheel to turn meat in front of the fire.

Dog working a turnspit

Dog working a turnspit

What I hadn’t realized was that there was a special breed of dog for this purpose.

The Turnspit Dog was a short-legged, long-bodied dog bred to run on a wheel, called a turnspit or dog wheel, to turn meat. The type is now extinct. It is mentioned in Of English Dogs in 1576 under the name Turnespete. Rev. W. Bingley’s Memoirs of British Quadrupeds (1809) also talks of a dog employed to help chefs and cooks. It is also known as the Kitchen Dog, the Cooking Dog, the Underdog and the Vernepator. In Linnaeus’s 18th century classification of dogs it is listed as Canis vertigus. The breed was lost since it was considered to be such a lowly and common dog that no record was effectively kept of it. They are related, it is believed, to the Glen of Imaal Terrier.

The Vernepator Cur was bred to run on a wheel in order to turn meat so it would cook evenly. This took both courage (to stand near the fire) and loyalty (not to eat the roast). Due to the strenuous nature of the work, a pair of dogs would often be worked in shifts. This may have led to the proverb ‘every dog has his day.’ The dogs were also taken to church to serve as foot warmers. One story says that during service at a church in Bath, the Bishop of Gloucester, gave a sermon and uttered the line “It was then that Ezekiel saw the wheel…”. At the mention of the word “wheel” several turnspit dogs, who had been brought to church as foot warmers, ran for the door.

via Turnspit Dog – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

And then there were dog carts, loaded with milk, machine guns, humans, you name it.

Dogs working

A pair of dogs pulling a milk cart.

So I’m wondering.  If we get another dog, should we also buy a treadmill?  Should I hitch it up to kitchen equipment?  Well, no. Those days are past.  The small electric motor is a much better way to dispose of all those time-consuming, tedious, and tiring kitchen chores assigned to women, servants or dogs in the past.

More pictures of dogs on treadmills.  Other efforts at making better butter churns.

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7 thoughts on “The Dog: The Cook’s Little Helper

  1. dianabuja

    Now there are some good ideas! How would folks in the village here want to use their dogs – perhaps a little machine to fan the charcoal that is cooking the beans and so forth…

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Yes, thanks for reminding us of this, Barb D. I think some of them were also for milk deliveries. I’m enjoying your blog by the way and have subscribed.

  2. Edward J Skehan

    I once saw a add for a dog operating a washing machine. It had three saucer like discs going up and down just at the top water level

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