Glen of Imaal Terrier

Glen of Imaal TerrierGlen of Imaal Terrier

Although rare, the Glen of Imaal is the only short legged breed native to Ireland. Additionally, he is the only terrier whose breed standard asks for a bow in the front legs. Particularly strongly built, he has became famous as the 'Turnspit' dog because he arguably worked in the treadmill of propelling a device which rotated the spit which turned meat as it slowly roasted in the old Irish kitchens.


Glen of Imaal Terriers 1933Glen of Imaal Terriers 1933

The Glen of Imaal Terrier derived its name from the name Glen (meaning valley) of the Imaal region of the Wicklow Mountains, south of Dublin which was first settled in the 1500's and 1600's. Survival of early settlers in this wild rocky none-too-fertile countryside was dependant on forcing a living from the rocky ground. This required a strong tough dog that would hunt badgers and foxes and keep the rat population to a minimum. So a dog had to assist in the day-to-day struggle for existence ot it would not be tolerated[2].

Glen of Imaal Terriers c 1935Glen of Imaal Terriers c 1935

By the 1700's dogs with crooked legs were described George Turberville's work 'The Noble Art of Hunting' as keener to enter the dens and stay there facing the vermin longer than any other terrier. Maybe the Glen of Imaal was a short legged fore-runner of Kerry Blue and Soft Coated Wheaten Terriers. So the Glen of Imaal we know today evolved, the attached picture being taken in 1933 when they were first recognized by the Irish Kennel Club.

The Turnspit Dog

A type of dog called the 'Turnspit dog' which was first described by Dr Caius in 1570. Whether the breed which has become what we know today as the Glen of Imaal Terrier was the original turnspit dog or whether the dogs that turned the spit roasts as described by Dr Caius were some other functional mixtures of dogs is unclear. But as the Glen of Imaal Terrier is generally accepted as the 'turnspit dog', this function is described here in some detail.

Glen of Imaal Terrier Turning the WheelGlen of Imaal Terrier Turning the Wheel

The traditional method of roasting poultry and joints of meat was on a horizontal metal rod called a spit stretched across an open fire. As the spit continuously rotated slowly to cook the meat evenly, it required tedious hours of slow turning. So instead of some human servant turning a handle attached to the spit, many kitchens in large homes, hotels and pubs installed dog powered treadmills whose centre was connected by cable to the hearth spit. Usually the wheel had four spokes supporting a flat rim, the inside of which became a running track for the dog. Most turnspit dogs had a distinctive shape with a long body and short legs. They also had to be strongly built because they often turned roasts and hams that could weigh more than 30 pounds.[1] 

Origin of Turnspit dogs

In 1570, Dr. Johannes Caius called this type of dog the Turnspits in his classification written in Latin and translated into English by A Fleming in 1576 AD[3]. The original translation of this important work is in my opinion too difficult to read to be printed in its original form. So it appears here as my interpretation in modern English.

Caius documentCaius document

There is known under the heading of mongrels of the coarsest kind is a certain dog excellent for its services in the kitchen. For when any meat is to be roasted, they are put into a wheel which they turn around with the weight of their bodies roasting the meat better than any kitchen maid. We shall call this type of dog the Turnspits.

The Glen of Imaal Today

Glen of Imaal (Blue)Glen of Imaal (Blue)

The Glen of Imaal is a short legged terrier so strongly built that his body is not only longer than it is high, the strength in his loins make the topline appear to rise towards his rear. He stands 35 - 36 cm (14 inches) high and his double coat comes in blue, brindle or any shade of wheaten. Unlike any other terrier that was first developed to work within the confines of burrows, he has bowed forelegs with a slight but perceptible bow.

Glen of Imaal (Wheaten)Glen of Imaal (Wheaten)

His head is of fair length with a well defined stop and a particularly strong foreface or muzzle housing a normal scissors bite. The eyes are round, of medium size and brown and he has small rose shaped or semi-erect ears. The neck is muscular and of moderate length, his shoulders broad and muscular.

Correctly bowed front legsCorrectly bowed front legsThe forelegs are well boned and slightly bowed, caused by his deep chest. The ribs are neither flat nor barrel shaped giving his lungs maximum capacity. This gives him flexibility and together with the strength in his loin and hindquarters that are particularly well muscled, he typically has an unusual slight rise in the topline. The feet are strong and round with the front feet allowed to turn out a little from the pastern as one would expect on legs with a slight bow. The tail is strong at the root, set on high and carried gaily. He moves with a free, ground covering action, with particularly good drive from his strong hindquarters.

References and Further Reading

[1] Stanley Coren - 'The Pawprints of History' published by Free Press New York 2002 Chapter 13

[2] 'The Native Dogs of Ireland' published by the Irish Kennel Club, Dublin ISBN 0-9509998-1-4 'The Glen of Imaal Terrier' Page 87

[3] Dr John Caius, "Of Englishe Dogges: The Diuersities, the Names, the Natures, and the Properties", London, 1576, translated into English by Abraham Fleming, Page 36. The work was originally published in Latin in 1570 as "Johannes Caius, De Canibus Britannicis".

See also Jane Harvey DVD "Terriers Then & Now" Published Rangeaire Vision 2002-2004 ISBN 978-0-9804296-4-0