Information about the Borzoi

The borzoi (literally “fast”) is a breed of domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) also called the Russian wolfhound and descended from dogs brought to Russia from central Asian countries. It is similar in shape to a greyhound, and is also a member of the sighthound family.

The system by which Russians over the ages named their sighthounds was a series of descriptive terms, not actual names. “Borzói” is the masculine singular form of an archaic Russian adjective that means “fast”. “Borzáya sobáka” (“fast dog”) is the basic term used by Russians, though the word “sobáka” is usually dropped. The name “Psovaya” derived from the word Psovina, meaning “wavy, silky coat”, just as “Hortaya” (as in Hortaya Borzaya) means shorthaired. In Russia today the breed we know as borzoi is therefore officially called “Russkaya Psovaya Borzaya”. Other Russian sighthound breeds are “Stepnaya Borzaya” (from the steppe), called “Stepnoi”; and “Krimskaya Borzaya” (from the Crimea), called “Krimskoi”.

The plural “borzois” may be found in dictionaries. However, the Borzoi Club of America asserts “Borzoi” is the preferred form for both singular and plural (in Russian, the plural is actually “borzýe”).

Borzoi are large Russian sighthounds which look similar to a number of central Asian breeds such as the Afghan hound, Saluki and the Kyrgyz Taigan. As a general approximation, “long-haired greyhound” is a useful description. Borzoi can come in almost any color or color combination. The long top-coat is silky and quite flat, with varying degrees of waviness or curling. The soft undercoat thickens in winter or cold climates, but is shed in hot weather to prevent overheating. In its texture and distribution over the body, the borzoi coat is unique. There should be a frill on its neck, as well as feathering on its hindquarters and tail.
The borzoi coat is silky and flat, often wavy or slightly curly.

Borzoi males frequently reach in excess of 100 pounds (45 kg), ~120 pounds. Males should stand at least 30 inches (about 80 centimeters) at the shoulder, while females should not be less than 26 inches (about 66 centimeters). Despite their size, the overall impression is of streamlining and grace, with a curvy shapeliness and compact strength.

The borzoi is a quiet but athletic and independent dog. Most borzoi are almost silent, barking only very rarely. They do not have strong territorial drives and cannot be relied on to raise the alarm upon sighting a human intruder. They are gentle and highly sensitive dogs with a natural respect for humans, and as adults they are decorative couch potatoes with remarkably gracious house-manners. Borzois should never display dominance or aggression towards people. Typically however, they are rather reserved and sensitive to invasion of their personal space; this can make them nervous around children unless they are brought up with them from an early age. Despite their size they adapt very well to suburban living, provided they have a spacious yard and regular opportunities for free exercise.

A common misunderstanding about the intelligence of breeds in the Hound group stems from their independent nature, which conflicts with the frequent confusion between the concepts of “intelligence” and “obedience” in discussions of canine brainpower. Stanley Coren’s survey of canine obedience trainers, published in the book The Intelligence of Dogs, reported that borzoi obeyed the first command less than 25% of the time. Coren’s test however was by his own admission heavily weighted towards the “obedience” interpretation of intelligence and based on a better understanding of “working” breeds than hounds. Unfortunately the publicity given to this report has led to unfair denigration of breeds which are under-represented in obedience clubs and poorly understood by the average obedience trainer. “Work” for hound breeds is done out of hearing and often out of sight of the human companion; it is an activity for which the dogs are “released”, rather than an activity which is “commanded”. In obedience terms, borzoi are selective learners who quickly become bored with repetitive, apparently pointless, activity, and they can be very stubborn when they are not properly motivated. For example, food rewards, or “baiting”, may work well for some individuals, but not all. Nevertheless, borzoi are definitely capable of enjoying and performing well in competitive obedience and agility trials with the right kind of training. Like other sighthounds they do not cope well with harsh treatment or training based on punishment, and will be extremely unhappy if raised voices and threats are a part of their daily life. However like any intelligent dog, borzoi respond extremely well to the guidance, support, and clear communication of a benevolent human leadership.

Borzoi were bred to pursue, or “course”, game and have a powerful instinct to chase things that run from them, including cats and small dogs. Built for speed and endurance, they can cover long distances in a very short time. A fully fenced yard is an absolute necessity for keeping any sighthound. They are highly independent and will range far and wide without containment, with little regard for road traffic. For off-lead exercise, a borzoi needs a very large field or park, either fully fenced or well away from any roads, to ensure its safety.

Borzoi are born with specialized coursing skills, but these are quite different from the dog-fighting instincts seen in some breeds. It is quite common for borzoi at play to course (run down) another dog, seize it by the neck and hold it immobile. Young pups do this with their littermates, trading off as to who is the prey. It is a specific hunting behavior, not a fighting or territorial domination behavior.

Borzoi can be raised very successfully to live with cats and other small animals provided they are introduced to them at a young age. Some, however, will possess the hunting instinct to such a degree that they find it impossible not to chase a cat that is moving quickly. The hunting instinct is triggered by movement and much depends on how the cat behaves.

Life expectancy is 10 to 12 years. Exceptional individuals have lived to be more than 14 years of age. Dogs that are physically fit and vigorous in their youth through middle age are more vigorous and healthy as elderly dogs, all other factors being equal. In the UK various cancers, followed by cardiac problems, seem to be the most frequent causes of premature death.

Like its native relative the Hortaya Borzaya, the borzoi is basically a very sound breed. OCD, hip and elbow dysplasia have remained almost unknown, as were congenital eye and heart diseases before the 1970s. However, in some countries modern breeding practices have introduced a few problems.

As with other very deep-chested breeds, gastric torsion is the most common serious health problem in the borzoi. Also known as bloat, this life-threatening condition is believed to be anatomical rather than strictly genetic in origin. Many borzoi owners recommend feeding the dog from a raised platform instead of placing the food-dish on the ground, and making sure that the dog rests quietly for several hours after eating, as the most reliable way to prevent bloat.

Less common are cardiac problems including cardiomyopathy and cardiac arrhythmia disorders. A controversy exists as to the presence of progressive retinal atrophy in the breed. A condition identified as Borzoi Retinopathy is seen in some individuals, usually active dogs, which differs from progressive retinal atrophy in several ways. First, it is unilateral, and rarely seen in animals less than 3 years of age; second, a clear cut pattern of inheritance has not been demonstrated; and finally, most affected individuals do not go blind. Borzoi puppies rapidly grow into strong and graceful sprinters.

Correct nutrition during puppyhood is also debatable for borzoi. These dogs naturally experience enormous growth surges in the first year or two of their lives. It is now widely accepted that forcing even faster growth by feeding a highly concentrated, high-energy diet is dangerous for skeletal development, causing unsoundness and increased tendency to joint problems and injury. Being built primarily for speed, borzoi do not carry large amounts of body fat or muscle, and therefore have a rather different physiology to other dogs of similar size (such as the Newfoundland, St. Bernard or Alaskan Malamute). Laboratory-formulated diets designed for a generic “large” or “giant” breed are unlikely to take the needs of the big sighthounds into account.

The issues involved in raw feeding may be particularly relevant to tall, streamlined breeds such as the borzoi. It is interesting to note that the Hortaya Borzaya, undoubtedly a very close relative, is traditionally raised on a meager diet of oats and table scraps. The Hortaya is also said to be intolerant of highly concentrated kibble feeds. Basically, a lean body weight in itself is nothing to be concerned about, and force-feeding of healthy young borzoi is definitely not recommended.

It was long thought that Saluki type sighthounds were originally brought to Russia from Byzantium in the South about the 9th and 10th centuries and again later by the Mongol invaders from the East. However, now that the archeological archives and research results of the former USSR are open to scientists, it has become quite clear that the primal sighthound type evolved between the Kyrgyzstan, the lower Kazakhstan part of Altai and the Afghan plains, and that the earliest actual sighthound breeds were the plains Afghan hounds and the Kyrgyz Taigan.

These ancient breeds then migrated South (founding the Tazi/Saluki branch) and West (founding the Stepnaya, Krimskaya and Hortaya branches) to develop into breeds adapted to those regions. This was a slow process which happened naturally through normal spreading of trade, with the silk and spice trade via the Silk Road being the prime vector.

The more modern Psovaya Borzaya was founded on Stepnaya, Hortaya and the Ukrainian-Polish version of the old Hort. There were also imports of Western sighthound breeds to add to the height and weight. It was crossed as well with the Russian Laika specifically and singularly to add resistance against Northern cold and a longer and thicker coat than the Southern sighthounds were equipped with.

All of these foundation types – Tazi, Hortaya, Stepnaya, Krimskaya and Hort – already possessed the instincts and agility necessary for hunting and bringing down wolves.

The Psovoi was popular with the Tsars before the 1917 revolution. For centuries, Psovoi could not be purchased but only given as gifts from the Tsar. Grand Duke Nicholas Nicolaievich of Russia bred countless Psovoi at Perchino, his private estate.

The Russian concept of hunting trials was instituted during the era of the Tsars. As well as providing exciting sport, the tests were used for selecting borzoi breeding stock; only the quickest and most intelligent hunting dogs went on to produce progeny. For the aristocracy these trials were a well-organized ceremony, sometimes going on for days, with the borzoi accompanied by mounted hunters and Foxhounds on the Russian steppe. Hares and other small game were by far the most numerous kills, but the hunters especially loved to test their dogs on wolf. If a wolf was sighted, the hunter would release a team of two or three borzoi. The dogs would pursue the wolf, attack its neck from both sides, and hold it until the hunter arrived. The classic kill was by the human hunter with a knife. Wolf trials are still a regular part of the hunting diploma for all Russian sightdog breeds of the relevant type, either singly or in pairs or trios, in their native country.

After the 1917 Revolution, wolf hunting with sighthounds has soon gone out of fashion as an “aristocratic” and a means- and -time-taking way of hunting. A necessity in a wolf-catching sighthound didn’t exist, in addition to the old proved technique of batue with the use of baits, flags and other appeared new, way more effective – from airplanes, from propeller sleighs, with electronic lure whistles. For decades the generations of few remaining sighthounds were regarded as hunting-suited, when showing enough attacking initiative for fox-hunting. The rumours about prosecution of sighthounds in post-revolutionary Russia is a legend of modern time, possibly based on similar incidents in Maoist China.

In the late 1940s a Soviet soldier named Constantin Esmont made detailed records of the various types of borzoi dogs he found in the Cossack villages. Esmont’s amazing pictures were recently published and can be viewed by clicking on the link below.

Esmont was concerned that the distinct types of borzaya were in danger of degenerating without a controlled system of breeding. He convinced the Soviet government that borzoi were a valuable asset to the hunters who supported the fur industry and henceforth, their breeding was officially regulated. To this day short-haired Hortaya Borzaya are highly valued hunting dogs on the steppes, while the long-haired Psovaya Borzaya, is going through a hard period of restoration of its working qualities after decades of shadow, mainly show existence.

Exports of borzoi to other countries were extremely rare during the Soviet era. However enough had been taken to England, Scandinavia, Western Europe and America in the late 19th century for the breed to establish itself outside its native country.