Dog breeds have long been shaped by the needs and whims of their human companions. We’ve bred dogs for their abilities, like the formidable tracking abilities of Bloodhounds. We’ve bred dogs for their looks, like the tiny, smiling, luxuriously fluffy Pomeranian. We’ve even focused on breeding dogs that are less likely to induce allergic reactions, like the amiable, curly-coated Labradoodle.
But some of the motivations for shaping dog breeds in the past seem a bit bizarre by modern standards—and it’s really no surprise that the results were a bit on the strange side, too.
The Turnspit Dog
If you’re saying “But that’s a cat,” when you look at the above picture, you’re quite right. The animal on the ground is a cat. But the animal running in the apparent hamster wheel hanging from the ceiling is the Turnspit Dog. The name of this breed is basically shorthand for its job: to turn the spit—that skewer that the cook has a piece of meat roasting on. So, basically, this.
No doubt the writers of the Flintstones thought this was reasonable for the Stone Age, but Turnspit Dogs were actually being employed up until the 19th century.
To add insult to injury, these dogs didn’t even get the Sabbath off—they were taken to church as foot warmers on Sundays. Some owners seemed fond enough of the little fellows—Queen Victoria kept her retired Turnspits as pets—while others were less than complimentary. Edward Jesse described them as “ugly dogs, with a suspicious, unhappy look about them.” Well, that’s no real surprise, considering that laborious task put before the little fellows.
Turnspit Dogs disappeared as kitchen technology improved to include non-dog-powered appliances; no attempt was made to preserve the breed, probably as much to the Turnspit’s relief as to everyone else’s.
The Salish Wooly Dog
That’s not the weirdest looking lamb you’ve ever seen. That’s an artist’s rendition of the Salish Wooly Dog. Native to Washington State and British Columbia, these unique dogs disappeared in the 19th century. The Salish Wooly Dog was bred for—yep, you guessed it—its wool.
Like sheep, the Salish Wooly Dogs would be sheared once a year, mainly for the creation of ceremonial blankets like the one being woven in the painting above. They were kept in gated areas so they wouldn’t breed with other dogs, preserving the thick woolliness and bright white color characteristic of the breed. These important pups were fed a combination of cooked and raw fish.
Europeans, however, later brought wool blankets (and eventually, actual sheep) to the region. Turns out it’s a bit easier to manage a flock of sheep that eat grass than a pack of salmon-snarfing dogs. The remaining Salish Wooly Dogs, no longer prized for their special fur, interbred with other dogs and lost their unique identity as a result.
The Hawaiian Poi Dog
Breeding dogs for their wool or to make sure your rotisserie chicken is evenly browned may seem off by modern standards, but the poor Poi Dog has an even darker history. This Hawaiian dog breed is named for its diet—native Hawaiians fed the dogs poi, a local food made from taro roots. They were fed poi to fatten them up for… yep. Poi Dogs were a food source. Their rather unhealthy, almost vegetarian diet was said to be to blame for their tendency to be lazy and slow, and for their peculiarly flat heads.
Luckily for the Poi Dog, at least, eating dog meat became unfashionable once European settlers arrived; the Poi interbred with European feral dogs until the breed disappeared. Today, however, some mixed breed Hawaiian dogs are still referred to as “Poi Dogs.”
The Kurī was a Polynesian dog which was eventually brought to New Zealand, where it went extinct. Like the Poi Dog, Kurī dogs were considered a food source, but unlike the unfortunate Poi Dog, that wasn’t their only purpose. Maori (Native to New Zealand) women became quite fond of the breed, and kept the Kurī for companionship.
Reports, however, were mixed—Julien Marie Crozet, a French explorer, said that the Kurī were always “treacherous” and “bit us frequently.” Although, honestly, one can hardly blame the Kurī—after all, some people were planning to bite them, too!
Bonus: The Sapsali
The Sapsali, Sapsal Dog, or Sapsaree is our bonus because we’re cheating a wee bit. The breed didn’t quite go extinct. But considering a real effort at breed preservation didn’t begin until there were only 8 remaining Sapsali, and considerable outcrossing (breeding Sapsali dogs with other breeds) must have been done to increase the breeding pool—close enough.
Here’s the modern Sapsali:
So what makes the Sapsali dog so bizarre? After all, he’s a pretty standard looking shaggy dog. Well, it’s not what this Korean dog looks like that makes his breed (and the human motivations behind it) so unique. It’s his very special skill set. This ancient breed—some historians estimate he’s been around since 37 BCE—is a very protective dog that bonds closely with its own family. Sapsali have traditionally been used as guard dogs.
Which, you know, is normal, until you learn that he’s also supposed to guard you against evil spirits. The name of the breed means “One that roots out evil spirits,” and they’re nicknamed “Ghost Dogs.”
Extinct or not, it obvious these five breeds had quite a bizarre upbringing.