The Borzoi, also known as the Russian Wolfhound or Psovaya Borsaya, is a sighthound native to Russia. These dogs were long used by the Russian nobility for hunting, and their primary quarry was always the wolf. Famed for their running, the word Borzoi comes from the Russian word for speed. These beautiful dogs later became famous as circus performers. Although the plural form of Borzois is sometimes used and is technically correct, the preferred plural form of Borzoi is Borzoi.
The Borzoi has always been closely associated with the Russian nobility. These dogs hunted wolves and other game alongside their masters for many centuries. Although it is generally agreed that the breed descended from crossing sighthounds with breeds more suited to life in the cold of Russia, which breeds were used and at what time they were mixed has long been disputed. Although only the long-haired variety of Borzoi known as the ‘Psovaya Borsaya’ is found outside of Russia, in its homeland another short or wiry-coated variety is found, known as the ‘Hortaya Borsaya’ or ‘Chortaj’. The short-coated Borzoi is thought to be the older of the two varieties.
Sighthounds are the oldest identifiable type of dog, and first appear on Mesopotamian and Egyptian artifacts around 6,000 to 7,000 B.C. The exact origin of these early sighthounds will probably never be known, but it is commonly believed that an Ancient Egyptian hunting dog known as the Tesem may have been their ancestor. These early sighthounds developed into a dog which closely resembles the modern Saluki, and may have in fact been that breed. Trade and conquest spread sighthounds throughout the ancient world, from Greece to China. It was once believed that the Saluki was the ancestor of all other sighthounds, but recent genetic analysis has called that into doubt. It is still probable that the Saluki or a very closely related breed was the ancestor of the Afghan Hound and other Asiatic sighthounds.
Russia has had a long history of contact with the nomadic peoples of Central Asia. Russia has both been invaded by and conqueror of these tribes for many centuries. The vast expanses of steppe (similar to a prairie) made for easy movement by any people skilled in horsemanship, of which many possessed sighthounds, breeds such as the Saluki, Tasy, Taigan, and Afghan Hound. At some point, these sighthounds entered Russia. It was long thought that they first arrived either with Byzantine traders in the 9th or 10th Centuries or during the Mongol Invasion of the early 1200’s. Another theory, based upon research published by the American Kennel Club (AKC) determined that a Russian Duke imported a pack of Gazelle Hounds (Salukis) from Persia in the early 1600’s. These dogs faired poorly in the frigid Russian winters and he had a second pack imported which he mixed with a collie-like Russian breed. The resulting dogs were the ancestors of the Borzoi. However, both of these possibilities have come into doubt recently with the opening of Soviet research documents and other evidence.
The first written record of a Russian hunting dog comes from the 1200’s, but these descriptions described a breed which hunted rabbits, and may not be of a Borzoi at all. The first depiction of a Borzoi-like dog from Russia can be found at the Sophia Cathedral in Kiev. Hunting frescoes from the 1000’s (when the now Ukrainian capital was still the capital of Russia) depict a dog which very closely resembles the ‘Hortaya Borsaya’ hunting stag and boar. This evidence suggests that the Borzoi predates the Mongol Invasion and certainly the 1600’s.
Studies conducted by the Soviet Union indicate that there were two ancestral types of sighthound present in Central Asia, the Afghan Hound of Afghanistan and the Taigan of Kyrgyzstan. These dogs migrated both South and North. Southern dogs developed into the Tasy and perhaps the Saluki, while Northern dogs developed into the Hortaya Borsaya. These Afghani and Kyrgyz sighthounds probably first arrived in the modern day Ukraine during the 800’s or 900’s. These dogs could have arrived either by trade or with conquering armies; the truth has probably been permanently lost to history. Central Asia suffers from harsh winters, and these dogs were most likely capable of surviving in Southern Russia and Ukraine. However, they would not have been able to survive the harsh winters of Moscow or Novgorod. To create a breed more adapted to the cold, breeders crossed the Hortaya Borsaya with Laikas; powerful Spitz-type dogs native to Northern Russia. Although it is not known exactly which one of the four types of Laika (East Siberian Laika, Karelo-Finnish Laika, Russo-European Laika, West Siberian Laika) was used, all of these dogs are well-adapted to the Russian cold, as well they are ferocious hunters who often fight giant Russian boar and even bear. It is also possible that herding and hunting dogs owned by the Lapp people, also of the Spitz-type, may have been used. In light of the evidence, particularly that gathered by the Soviet researchers much of the above could have a basis in fact.
However it is that the breed first came into existence, the Borzoi has long been a treasured hunting companion of the Russian nobility. These dogs were always favored by the Czar and lesser nobles. Although hares and rabbits were the most common prey available, the breed has also been used with some frequency to hunt boar and deer; however, the wolf has always been seen as the preferred and worthy quarry of the Borzoi. The Borzoi is one of the only breeds both large and fast enough to run down a wolf, especially in the cold climate and often snowy conditions found in Russia. Traditionally, the Borzoi was not tasked with either locating or killing the wolf. A pack of foxhounds or other scenthounds would trail the wolf and flush it out from the brush.
Once flushed from hiding, the fleet-footed Borzoi would pursue the wolf. Working in a group of two or three, the Borzoi would overtake the wolf, and then bump its prey with its shoulder and attack the neck until the wolf fell down. Once down, the wolf would be run down by a hunter on horseback. The hunter would then either dispatch the wolf with a lance or capture it alive. The most desirable way to end a hunt would be for a hunter to kill the wolf in close quarters with a knife. The Russian nobility was so fond of hunting that giant hunts were often organized. It was a routine sight to see a pack of over one-hundred foxhounds and one-hundred Borzoi. Some hunts involved over two hundred participants and one hundred dog trainers. In the last days of the Russian nobility, some hunts required 40 train cars for all horses, dogs, and human participants. For many centuries, the only people allowed to own Borzois were members of the nobility. At various times in Russian history, it was illegal to sell a Borzoi; they could only be given as gifts by the Czar. It was Russian breeders who were responsible for the breed’s coloration. They preferred light animals because they were both camouflaged against the snow and easier to distinguish from wolves.
It is sometimes said that the first Borzoi standard was written in 1650, but this is more of a description of the breed than what modern day dog fanciers would consider a Breed Standard. It is certain that the Russian nobility carefully bred these dogs. Originally the large hunts which these dogs took part in were almost entirely for sport. Eventually, they became tests of the suitability of these dogs. Only the most success dogs would be bred. From a very early age, the Borzoi’s breeding was carefully regulated, although desirable dogs from other nations were used to improve the breed. This was especially the case in the 1800’s when Western European sighthounds were added to Borzoi bloodlines.
During the 1800’s, the nobility of Russia began to lose a great deal of its power, and the Borzoi began to decline in numbers and quality. In 1861, Russian emancipated the last of its serfs. Many nobles left their lands for the cities, and abandoned or greatly reduced the size of their kennels. These dogs were either euthanized or taken by the newly freed lower class. Borzoi became uncommon in areas where the wolf population was not plentiful. The Russian Revolution of 1917 almost doomed the breed to extinction. The Communists who took over Russia saw the Borzoi as a sign of the hated nobility and the oppression which they had endured under them. Many Borzoi were killed outright. More than a few Russian nobles took it upon themselves to euthanize their beloved dogs rather than let them fall into communist hands. The vast size of Russia allowed a number of Borzoi to survive in remote areas.
Eventually a Soviet soldier by the name of Constantin Esmont took a fancy to the different sighthounds he encountered in Cossack villages. In the late 1940’s, he recorded them in a series of photographs. Esmont was able to successfully convince Soviet authorities that the Borzoi and other sighthounds were valuable as a means to provide furs for the Soviet fur industry and to control wolf populations which threatened Soviet livestock. The Soviet Union subsequently took control of breeding efforts in order to preserve the unique varieties of Borzoi.
Although very few Borzoi were exported during the Soviet era, enough of these dogs had been exported to the United Kingdom, United States, and a few other countries before the Russian Revolution that the breed established sustainable populations in the West. Borzoi were found across Russia, but restrictions on the transfer and selling of these dogs meant that they did not leave their homeland until the late 19th Century. The first Borzoi known to have left Russia were a pair given to Queen Victoria by the Russian Czar. Prince Edward was also given a pair named Molodetz and Oudalzka. Molodetz and Oudalzka were both exhibited in public and would go on to produce offspring which were later shown at British dog shows. Queen Alexandra took a keen interest in the Borzoi, and kept and bred many of these dogs. Around 1890, the Borzoi began to be fully established in England. The Duchess of Newcastle was largely responsible, as she founded the Notts Kennel and dedicated herself to producing the finest quality Borzoi. The weakening of the Russian nobility allowed more and more of these dogs to be exported. For many years, the Borzoi was known as the Russian Wolfhound in the United Kingdom. Another famous British fancier was E.J. Smith, the captain of the Titanic. There are photos of Smith with his beloved white Borzoi, Ben, outside of the Titanic’s cabin, but the dog was not present on the ill-fated ship’s maiden voyage.
The first Borzoi, or Russian Wolfhounds as they were then known, to arrive in the United States came from England in the 1880’s. The breed was first recognized by the American AKC in 1891. In 1892, there were only two Borzoi registered with the AKC, littermates with an English-born dam and a Russian-born sire. The first Borzoi to be imported into the United States directly from Russia arrived in 1890. In that year, at least seven dogs were brought to the Seacroft Kennels. Many early American enthusiasts wanted to use Borzoi to hunt wolves and coyotes in the American West. They found that many of the Russian Kennels had dogs which had degenerated in quality and type, and had to search before they found the dogs which they wanted. Although many Russian-born dogs were used in the show ring, most of them were initially used for hunting.
The Borzoi Club of America (BCOA) was founded November 12, 1903 as the "Russian Wolfhound Club of America." The original purpose of the club per a letter penned by a member of its Executive Comittee, Joseph B. Thomas, was to "place the Russian Wolfhound, both as a working dog and as a 'chien de luxe' (dog of luxury), first in popular esteem among the larger breeds." In 1904, the club's members gathered at the Westminster Kennel Club show and drafted both a club constitution and breed standard; that same year the club was elected to membership within the AKC. The standard was approved and formally published in 1905 and has remained relatively unchanged to this day, save a few minor revisions in 1940 and 1972. In 1936, the breed's name was changed from Russian Wolfhound to Borzoi and likewise the club's name changed to the Borzoi Club of America.
The United Kennel Club (UKC), which focuses on working dogs, first recognized the Borzoi in 1914. In the Middle of the 20th Century, the Borzoi became famous as a circus dog. The Borzoi was popular because not only were they beautiful and elegant dogs which captivated crowds, but they were also large enough to be easily visible. A troupe of performing Borzois traveled with the Ringling Bros. Circus for a number of years. Many circus attendees became captivated by the Borzoi and later became owners and breeders. In recent years, Borzoi have been used for the sport of lure coursing. Although the breed does not have the top speed of the Greyhound or the stamina of the Saluki, the Borzoi still excels at the sport, and competition between Borzoi can be fierce.
The Borzoi has made many appearances in Russian literature and art throughout the ages. These beautiful animals perhaps feature in Russian artwork more than any other indigenous breed. In particular, a lengthy wolf hunting scene which covers several chapters is included in Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece of 1869, "War and Piece". In more recent times, the Borzoi has appeared in the films Lady and the Tramp, Onegin, Hello, Dolly!, Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii, Legends of the Fall, Excalibur, Bride of Frankenstein, A Knights Tale, Sleepy Hollow, The Last Action Hero, and Gangs of New York. The breed has also made appearances on the small screen in Wings and Kuroshitsuji. A Borzoi is also the symbol of the Alfred K. Knopf Publishing House.
In Russia, a large number of Borzoi are still used to pursue wolves in the traditional style. In fact, Russian breeders will typically not breed their dogs with English or American-born Borzoi, which they feel lack hunting instinct and ability. There is a growing dog show movement in Russia, as well as a tendency to breed dogs for type. With the growing wealthy upper class of post-Soviet Russia, it is likely that the Borzoi may one day reclaim its role as a dog of high status.
In the United States, a few Borzoi are employed as hunters, although the number is very small. Additionally, some of these dogs remain circus performers, although most circuses have closed down. The vast majority of Borzoi in America are now either show dogs or companion animals. Because of the breeds special requirements the Borzoi will likely never be a particularly common breed. However, the Borzoi does have a small but dedicated following and a fair number of fanciers and breeders who are committed to preserving and protecting the breed. From the 1980's on, breed numbers have remained fairly stable. According to AKC dog registration statistics for 2010, the Borzoi was 96th in registrations out of 167 recognized breeds.
The Borzoi is known for being one of the most beautiful and elegant looking dog breeds in the world. As would befit a dog with a long association with royalty, the Borzoi is graceful and refined. The Borzoi is a very tall dog, but is not particularly heavy for its height. Male Borzoi must be at least 28 inches tall at the shoulder, and females must be at least 26 inches tall at the shoulders. Some dogs are considerably larger, although overall quality should not be sacrificed for size. The average male Borzoi weighs between 75 and 100 pounds, with most females weighing between 60 to 90 pounds. The Borzoi should appear to be a thin dog, but not to the extent of a sighthound such as a Saluki or Greyhound. Borzoi have long legs for their body size. The breed is quite muscular, although this is somewhat obscured by its hair. The tail of the Borzoi is long, thin, saber-like, and typically held low.
The head and muzzle of the Borzoi are long and quite narrow, giving the dog a refined appearance. The head of the Borzoi appears quite flat which combined with its narrow width make the head look quite small for the size of the dog. The head is placed at the end of a long and slightly arched neck. The Borzoi has large, almond-shaped eyes which are set obliquely. Borzoi should always have dark eyes, with an intelligent expression. The Borzoi has a large, dark nose. The ears of a Borzoi are small, and are typically held far back, almost against the side of the head. When a Borzoi is at attention, these ears will stand up, although the tips may droop slightly.
The Borzoi is known for its long, silky coat, which protects the dog from Russian winters. Unlike many breeds, the Borzoi’s hair may be either flat, wavy, or loosely curled. Short and smooth hair is found on the head, ears, and the front of the legs. The hindquarters and tail are heavily feathered, but the chest and front legs are less so. In many Borzoi, the coat is thickest and heaviest on the neck. It is often said that a good hound can come in any color, and that is definitely the case with the Borzoi. Any color or pattern is acceptable in the breed. The most commonly seen color patterns in Borzoi are white dogs with large patches of red, orange, or tan. Solid dark colors were disfavored in the past and are rare in the modern breed.
The Borzoi is known for being a loyal and loving companion. These dogs will be very affectionate and friendly with those they know well, but are not known for being fawningly affectionate. Borzoi tend to become quite devoted to their families. Well-socialized Borzoi are rarely aggressive towards children, and can get along very well with children who respect them. However, the Borzoi is not an ideal breed to have around young children as they do not enjoy rough play at all. Borzoi are usually polite with strangers, but will not run usually run up to any stranger tail wagging. Despite their large size, Borzoi would not make good guard dogs as they are less territorial than most breeds and are rarely aggressive. Borzoi are very sensitive to stress, to the point where they have been known to vomit when their owners are fighting. If you are a high stress family, or one which gets into frequent shouting matches, the Borzoi is most likely not the ideal breed for your family.
Borzoi were bred to work in mixed gender packs of up to one hundred dogs. They have traditionally worked in close tandem with other Borzoi, as well hunting hounds and terriers. This breed can do very well with other dogs, especially when compared with most breeds of its size. Because of their massive size, Borzoi that have not been properly socialized may not understand that tiny breeds such as Chihuahuas are dogs. Instead, they may view them as prey, potentially resulting in a pursuit and attack. It is always best to exercise caution when introducing new dogs to each other, especially when one is as large as an adult Borzoi.
It is not recommended to keep Borzoi with non-canine pets. This breed was bred as a hunting dog for hundreds of years. It has an instinct to pursue and attack prey. This dog will definitely go running after squirrels and birds in your backyard, and will sometimes catch them. If not properly socialized, Borzoi will almost certainly attack small pets such as hamsters and guinea pigs. Even the most well-trained Borzoi should probably not be left alone with them. Borzoi can be socialized and trained to get along with household cats, but if one starts running the Borzoi’s instincts may take over leading the dog to make chase. Remember, a Borzoi which will snuggle with your cat may chase and attack your neighbor’s cat, and a Borzoi is large and powerful enough to seriously injure or kill smaller creatures.
The Borzoi is known for being a highly intelligent dog. This breed is more than capable of learning and performing complex tricks, as its years of circus work demonstrates. The Borzoi is probably the most trainable of all sighthounds, and possibly all hounds. Some Borzoi have excelled in obedience and agility trials. However, this breed still presents some training difficulties. If you are used to training Labrador Retrievers or Poodles, you will likely experience frustration with Borzoi. These dogs tend to be independent and somewhat willful. They have a tendency to do what they want to do, rather than what their owners want them to do. Any training regimen involving Borzoi will need to involve a great number of rewards. It is very important that owners not use harsh methods to train a Borzoi. These dogs are very sensitive to shouting or over-correction, and have a tendency to become nervous or fearful if trained in a method which is not sensitive to their needs.
The Borzoi is known for being calm and relaxed indoors, and is quite happy to stretch out on the couch and watch television with its owner. However, this is only the case when the dog has been properly exercised. Borzoi were bred to run and they need to be able to do so. This breed requires a long daily walk, and preferably a safely enclosed area in which it can run freely. If a Borzoi is not properly exercised, they have a tendency to become destructive, and these large animals can easily destroy an entire room. If you do not have the time or ability to properly exercise this breed, you should not acquire one.
Borzoi should not be let off-leash when in an unsecured area. These dogs will pursue whatever catches their attention, and even the most well-trained Borzoi have a tendency to ignore their owners when they are in pursuit. There is no way an owner could catch up to a Borzoi, as these dogs run much faster than the fastest human who has ever lived. Any fence which contains a Borzoi must be very tall, and very secure. These dogs are capable of extreme feats of canine athleticism and are more than capable of getting over an six-foot fence. They are also very intelligent and will be able to find any weakness. These dogs are also strong enough to go straight through a weak point in a fence if they find it.
Special care must be given to exercising Borzoi for two reasons. Young Borzoi are slow to develop and cannot be overly exercised. Too much exercise at too young of an age can cause serious damage to the growing bones of a Borzoi, leading to lifelong problems. It is important to carefully monitor the physical activity of Borzoi puppies. Also, the Borzoi is susceptible to bloat, a fatal condition which is often brought on by physical activity too quickly after eating. Borzoi should never be allowed to do any intense physical eating for a while after a meal.
Borzoi are known for being both quiet and clean. While they are fully capable of barking or baying, the breed does so much less often than most breeds. Borzoi are less likely to cause noise complaints than most other breeds. The Borzoi is also known for cleaning itself, and has been described as catlike. This means that the breed is considerably cleaner and has a lesser odor than most large breeds.
The Borzoi has surprisingly low grooming requirements given the breed’s coat. The dog should rarely if ever require professional grooming. The breed must be regularly brushed to prevent matting, however. This grooming can be quite time consuming given the length of the Borzoi’s hair and its immense size. The breed can be difficult and time consuming to bathe, again due to size and hair. However, these dogs clean themselves and rarely require baths.
The Borzoi is a heavy shedder for most of the year, but there will be periods when the seasons are changing when the breed is an immense shedder. If you own a Borzoi, there will be very long dog hair covering all of your floors, furniture, car seats, and clothes. During seasonal shedding, your Borzoi’s favorite spots will be almost entirely covered. If you or a member of your family is an allergy sufferer or a neat freak who cannot stand the thought of cleaning up dog hair constantly, the Borzoi would definitely not be an ideal breed.
As is the case with many large dog breeds, the Borzoi does not have a long life expectancy. These dogs typically live between 7 and 10 years, considerably less than most other breeds. The most common serious health problem facing the Borzoi is gastric torsion, more commonly known as bloat. Bloat is common to many large, deep-chested breeds, and occurs when the stomach becomes twisted. There are many causes of bloat, but the most common is exercise too soon after eating. Bloat is fatal without emergency surgery, and is one of three leading causes of Borzoi death. The other two are cardiac problems and cancer.
Although for many years cardiac problems and cancer were rare in the Borzoi breed, in recent years they have begun appearing at an alarming rate. Breeders are working to discover the reason for these rapid increases in cancer and heart problem rates and to help eliminate them from breeding lines. Despite their other health problems, hip and elbow dysplasia rates for the breed have remained considerably lower than those of most other large breeds.
Owners must be careful of their Borzoi’s diets. These dogs tend to be picky eaters. Additionally, feeding a Borzoi puppy a diet that is too rich in nutrition may cause them to grow to fast and to have lifelong skeletal problems. Breeders and veterinarians should be consulted as most commercial dog food formulas designed for large breed puppies were developed for breeds such as a Saint Bernard or a Great Pyrenees, and do not take the needs of large sighthounds such as the Borzoi into account.
It is always advisable to get your pets tested by either the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals and/or the Canine Eye Registration Foundation, particularly if you intend to breed. The OFA and CERF test for various genetically inherited disorders such as blindness and hip dysplasia that may impact either your dog or its descendants.
In general, health problems which the Borzoi is known to suffer from include: