In the early 20th century, the impossibly elegant Borzoi became an icon of streamlined beauty and elegant efficiency. The breed formerly known as the Russian Wolfhound perfectly symbolized Western society’s desire to shake off old cultural confines in the aftermath of World War I.
Known as the Russkaya Psovaya Borzaya in its homeland, the Borzoi possesses a distinctive form that seems both ancient and modern. The breed’s strength and courage inspired the development of a national sport in tsarist Russia, and its utter loveliness served as muse for contemporary artists and sculptors following the Russian Revolution.
The exact origin of the Borzoi is unknown, however it is generally accepted that more than a thousand years ago traders traveling along the Silk Road gradually introduced sighthounds into Russia from the Middle East. Various theories suggest a Saluki-type hound or the desert Afghan as the earliest progenitor. These ancient hounds adapted to the geographic regions along the trade route, eventually diverging in type to accommodate the local terrain, climate and available prey.
The development of the Borzoi incorporated crosses with local dogs – possibly the Russian Laika – to improve coat length and thickness, thus affording protection against extreme cold.
In Russia, several sighthound breeds were known by the 19th century, and two of these were used in the development of the modern Borzoi. The first was a very fast, smooth-coated sighthound that coursed wolves and caught hare. When bred to a larger, stronger type that hunted wolves and wild pigs, the result was a superior coursing hound that would become the most famous of the Russian sighthounds.
Hunting with Borzoi reached its highest level through the era of the tsars. During the 19th century, the Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaivitch conducted well-organized hunts at his lodge, Perchino, which went on for days. Records show that the Perchino Hunt consisted of 130 Borzoi, plus 100 puppies and 20 retired hounds, alongside 100 Foxhounds, 87 Thoroughbreds and a staff of 78 attendants. By all accounts it was a spectacle on the grandest of scales.
Although the Borzoi often hunted hare and fox, the quarry of the duke’s elaborate hunting parties was the wolf. Working in teams of two or three, the hounds were released only when the prey was sighted. A chase ensued whereby the prey was harassed and eventually grabbed from both sides of the neck and from behind. The hounds then held the wolf by the throat until the hunter arrived on horseback.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Borzoi was viewed as a symbol of tyranny and opulence. The breed may well have died out had it not been for the hounds that survived in kennels in the vast Russian countryside.
Exports were extremely rare during the Soviet era, however the Borzoi was already established to some degree in the West at that time. Kennels in Scandinavia, England, Western Europe and America produce Borzoi from stock descended from early imports.
The first Borzoi arrived in America from England in 1889, and AKC recognition followed in 1891. Joseph B. Thomas of Boston made several important visits to the Perchino and Woronzova kennels in the early 20th century. The hounds he brought to the U.S. did much to establish the breed in this country.
The Borzoi Club of America was formed in 1903 as the Russian Wolfhound Club of America. The first AKC breed standard was approved two years later and has been revised only twice since, in 1940 and 1972.
Today the Borzoi is kept as a stylish companion and show dog, although in some parts of the American West the breed is employed by farmers to help manage coyote populations.
In 2011 the Borzoi ranked 102nd out of 173 AKC-recognized breeds.
A Graceful Curve
“Unmistakable elegance” is how the AKC breed standard describes the Borzoi’s general appearance. A series of flowing lines creates a sophisticated silhouette, while providing the speed and flexibility necessary to course wild game on more or less open terrain.
The Borzoi’s outline flows gracefully in motion or repose. Although the standard does not specifically mention the breed’s topline, the back is described as, “rising a little at the loins in a graceful curve.” The highest point of the curve appears over the loin, between the last rib and the pelvis, before gently descending into the croup.
The loins are “extremely muscular, but rather tucked-up, owing to the great depth of chest and comparative shortness of back and ribs,” according to the standard. Well-tucked-up loins and a moderately sloping croup emphasize the graceful curves, while providing the requisite strength and agility. A correctly made Borzoi moves at the trot and gallop with “effortless power, endurance, speed, agility, smoothness and grace.”
The Borzoi’s aristocratic bearing and ability to perform its intended function are greatly diminished by structural faults. A flat back, sway back, wheel back or a descending topline are detrimental to the breed’s ability to chase and catch its quarry and completely destroy the general impression of elegance.
A Head for Business
The head of the Borzoi must be powerful enough for the serious business of holding onto its formidable prey. Long and narrow, its shape extends the length of the neck and increases the hound’s reach as it closes in on its intended target.
The proportions of the Borzoi’s head are in balance with the hound’s overall size. The skull is equal in length to the muzzle as measured from the tip of the nose to the inner corner of the eye. When viewed from the side, the muzzle appears deep. Length of head and depth of muzzle allow ample area for the attachment of long, lean muscles.
The jaws of the Borzoi are long and powerful, with strong teeth meeting in a scissors or even bite. Missing teeth compromise the hound’s ability to hold onto prey and are to be penalized in the conformation show ring.
As elegant as it is efficient, the head of the Borzoi possesses a refinement typical of the sighthound breeds. A slightly domed skull and barely perceptible stop compliment the breed’s signature curves, as does a suggestively Roman nose.
Even the breed’s small folded ears, carried well back and not below the level of the eye, and its dark, almond-shaped eyes set obliquely on the sides of the head, have a delicate beauty that belies their usefulness throughout the hunt.
A Coat of Many Colors
Typical of most sighthounds, the Borzoi was valued by its developers for its ability to work. Only those hounds possessing qualities that improved performance would be used in breeding programs. Color was of little consequence.
Thus, all colors and patterns are acceptable. Although dark-colored hounds were passed over by some Russian kennels because they stood out in the snow, no color preference exists today and all are welcome in the show ring.
It is the texture of the coat, rather than its color, that is of great significance. “Long, silky (not wooly), either flat, wavy or rather curly” is how the breed standard describes this unique feature.
To survive life on the vast Russian steppes, the Borzoi needed a coat that afforded protection from the cold, without growing to excess.
On the head, the coat is short and smooth, permitting an unobstructed view for this powerful sighthound’s keen eyes. Likewise, the hair on the front of the legs is short and smooth, thus preventing snow from collecting and impeding the chase.
Long and profuse feathering of the hindquarters and tail provides insulation and protection, as does the moderate feathering of the chest and back of the forelegs. Perhaps the Borzoi’s best defense is the profuse frill that safeguards the neck from a painful bite delivered by its intended prey.
The texture of the Borzoi’s coat also adds greatly to its beauty. Soft and lustrous to the touch, the correctly made coat – neither too straight nor too curly – provides the perfect finish for this aristocratic and aerodynamic sighthound.
An Effortless Power
A description of the Borzoi would not be complete without mention of the breed’s graceful way of going. The 1972 revision to the breed standard incorporated a description of this elegant sighthound’s gait for the show ring.
In its traditional role, the Borzoi moves with efficiency in pursuit of its prey. Acceleration during the chase is required and relies on balanced angles and good muscling of the running gear. Good reach well out in front and a noticeable drive from well-angulated stifles and hocks allow the hound to cover ground without impediment.
Powerful, effortless and enduring, the gait at the trot is sound and efficient, but with a distinctly light and springy step. This lightness further contributes to the Borzoi’s grace and elegance.
Only its elevated beauty can match the courage and agility of Russia’s most famous sighthound. Aerodynamic in form and lavishly furnished with feather and frill, the Borzoi continues to serve as muse for anyone with an appreciation for efficiency and unreserved refinement.
The Borzoi Club of America “Study Material for Judges” was a source of historical information for this article.