The Russians love dogs, no question about that, and they always have. Peter the Great, the one who first turned toward the West and made Russia an empire to be reckoned with in the rest of the world more than 300 years ago, had a little Terrier named Lizette whose embalmed body can reportedly still be viewed in a St. Petersburg’s museum. Almost a century later, Empress Catherine the Great bred “little English greyhounds” (or Whippets, as those of us who love the breed prefer to call them, although that name was not used yet). They slept on a pink silk couch in her bedroom, and the Empress was painted walking in the park with one. The last Romanovs had lots of dogs; one of them, a King Charles Spaniel named Jimmy, died on that fateful day when the whole imperial family was killed in Ekaterinburg in 1918.

The Yakut Laika. Photo by Lana Valoueva.

Then, of course, followed several decades when the Soviet Union was mostly closed to outsiders. That doesn’t mean people didn’t continue to love dogs, although records of organized dog activities are scarce. But when the windows opened to the rest of the world again in the early 1990s, what followed can best be likened to a floodgate. The Russian Kynological Federation was formed in 1992 and became a member of the Fédération Cynologique Internationale in 1999. In recent years we have seen increasingly clear evidence that the Russians are producing world-class dogs in many breeds. The reports from the Eurasia show, held in Moscow on March 23-24 this year, indicate that entries keep growing; this year there were more than 13,000 entries over the two days.

Russia’s contribution to early dog shows consisted largely of two breeds: the Borzoi has been a favorite of both aristocracy and pretenders for over a century, and the Samoyed, which came first to England in the early 1900s and then spread to the rest of the Western world. The Borzoi, of course, is particularly interesting as a political symbol in Russia: reportedly most of those that existed perished during the early, anti-monarchial era, and almost all of Russia’s Borzoi today have a lot of Western imports in their pedigrees, but at least a few “pure” native old lines seem to have survived. It’s worth noting, however, that some of the best current strains in America descend from a group of dogs brought in from Russia by the young, rich world traveler Joseph B. Thomas, of Hartford, Conn., through repeated trips a few years before the revolution.

The Middle Asian Ovcharka. Photo by Lana Valoueva.

In later years the Russian Black Terrier has attracted a lot of attention both at home and abroad. Two different Black Russian Terriers won Best Russian Breed at the Eurasia shows this year. The breed was created in the mid-1950s by the Soviet military, which wanted an easily trained guard dog. It’s the result of a deliberate cross between several established breeds – Giant Schnauzers, Rottweilers, Airedales, Newfoundlands, etc. The first standard was published in 1958, but the Black Russian Terrier was not recognized as a breed even in its homeland until 1981, by the FCI a few years later and by AKC starting in 1996, with full recognition in the Working Group only in 2004.

Little-Known Breeds in the West

There are also many other native Russian breeds at various levels of national or international recognition. Most of them are little known in the West, and Lana Valoueva’s photos from the Eurasia weekend show just a few examples. For an outsider who doesn’t speak Russian, it’s difficult to become fully familiar with the specific details of each breed; the Cyrillic alphabet that’s largely unfamiliar to most of us in the West doesn’t help. To complicate matters even further, the translation of the breed names may differ somewhat, depending on the translator. However, most likely we’ll see a lot more of these breeds in the West in the future, and greater familiarity with them will prove useful.

The South Russian Ovcharka. Photo by Lana Valoueva.

Many of the native Russian breeds are called either Laikas or Ovcharkas.

The former is a term that simply means “barker,” as in barking dog. It is used both in Russian and English to refer to various hunting breeds from northern Russia, usually of the type that’s often termed Spitz. There’s the Russian European Laika, the West Siberian Laika and the East Siberian Laika, but the Russians also call, for example, the Norwegian Elkhound a Norwegian Elk Laika and the Finnish Spitz a Finnish Bird Laika. Even the related sled dogs are sometimes referred to as Laikas. The Samoyed may be called a Samoyed Laika and the Siberian Husky, which the FCI officially classifies as an American breed, can sometimes be called a Yakut Laika – although some sources claim that a Yakut Laika differs from a regular Husky, something that Lana Valoueva’s photo seems to indicate. “Yakut” comes from the Yakutia Republic, a federal subject of Russia, bordering and partly overlapping Siberia, about the size of India or Argentina.

Laika can also be the personal name of a Russian dog, most famously exemplified by the first dog in space, which reportedly also carried some Laika breed bloodlines.

All three “original” Laika breeds mentioned above are recognized by the FCI, but not yet by the AKC.

The Caucasian Ovcharka. Photo by Lana Valoueva.

Ovcharka Shepherd or Guard Dogs

“Ovcharka” means simply “shepherd dog” and covers a large group of breeds. One of them, the Eastern European Shepherd, very much resembles a regular German Shepherd Dog but is stronger, somewhat heavier. It is the result of crossing German Shepherds with various Husky types in the first part of the 20th century, in order to produce a dog that could cope with extreme cold. The breed standard was recognized in 1964 by the Ministry of Agriculture of the U.S.S.R., but the breed is not yet internationally established.

The Eastern European Shepherd. Photo by Lana Valoueva.

Most Ovcharka breeds, however, are of a Molosser type, distinctly more guard dogs than herders. They are not breeds for everyone, but in spite of this the Central Asian Ovcharka is sometimes reported as being Russia’s most popular breed. It’s an ancient type of dog, said to have existed as far back as 5,000 years ago, bred to guard house and home. Some were also used as livestock guardians, and some are still used for dog fighting, which is considered a national tradition in many regions. Reportedly these fights are very different from Western-style dogfights, however, and more an exercise in intimidation, a test of the dog’s willingness and ability to fight off predators.

The Buryat Mongolian Wolfhound. Photo by Lana Valoueva.

AKC has accepted the breed under the name “Central Asian Shepherd Dog” into its Foundation Stock Service, the first step to eventual recognition. It was approved to compete in AKC Companion Events as of January 1, 2010.

There are several related Ovcharka breeds. There’s the South Russian Ovcharka, also called the Ukrainian Ovcharka, which has a long, usually white coat and also is described as “dominant,” “fierce” and “wary of strangers.” It is not yet on the AKC register, while the Caucasian Ovcharka is in the FSS register and has been eligible to compete in AKC Companion Events since January 1, 2008. Like the other Ovcharka breeds, it has been employed as a combined guard, herding and fighting dog for several hundred years, developing the protectiveness and ferocity that are typical of these breeds. The Caucasian Ovcharka was even used to hunt bear. If you’re part of an Ovcharka’s “family,” you can feel safe from intruders, but their intolerance of strangers makes these breeds unsuitable for anyone except an experienced owner.

The Moscow Guarddog. Photo by Lana Valoueva.

Mongolian Wolfhound Survived Near Extinction

Much less is known of the Buryat Mongolian Wolfhound, sometimes also called Hotosho. It is usually black and tan, and its relationship to the Tibetan Mastiff is obvious. The breed was reportedly on the way to extinction when rescued and restored in the second half of the 20th century. Even less is known of its temperament, but judging by a treasure trove of photographs,it appears much more friendly and affectionate than the Ovcharkas. Although the translated breed name includes the word “hounds,” they are certainly not what we in the West think of as a Hound breed.

The same is reportedly true for the Moscow Guarddog, which is said to combine great guarding ability with the sweet temperament of a family pet. It was developed in the Soviet Union after World War II from a combination of the Saint Bernard with Ovcharkas, as well as German Shepherds and other breeds. It is reportedly not just calm, quiet and very fond of children, but even usually friendly with strangers.

The Russian Spaniel. Photo by Lana Valoueva.

In the non-guard dog department, Russia has also created its own Spaniel, a combination of English Cocker, English Springer and other Spaniels. In appearance, it mostly resembles a field-type English Cocker Spaniel, lighter and leggier, and with a short, tight, silky coat and less feathering than most other Spaniels.

The Russian Colored Bolognese. Photo by Lana Valoueva.

A Couple of Toy Breeds

Little is known about the background of the so-called Russian Colored Bolognese, or Bolonka. Conflicting stories about its ancestry have been offered. According to one, it descends from the Bichon Frisé, but reportedly there have been “irregularities in record keeping” in Russia, which means that the true story may remain obscure.

Much more is documented about the breed simply named the Russian Toy, however. It’s well on its way to full recognition by FCI, has an active breed club in the U.S. and was approved to compete in AKC Companion Events effective January 1, 2010. The Russian Toy Club of America was founded in 2008 and had, as of November last year, over 840 Russian Toys with full pedigrees listed in its breed registry.

This breed descends from the English Toy Terrier, which had been very popular in Russia in the early 20th century. By mid-century there were few left, and even fewer were of pure blood.

The standard drawn up at that time differed considerably from that in England, and eventually the breeds went their separate ways. In 1958 two smooth-haired dogs produced a dog with ear fringes, and thus the longhaired variety of the Russian Toy was created. This is one of the smallest breeds in the world, often compared to the Chihuahua, measuring 8 to10 inches tall and weighing 3 to 5 pounds. The dogs have small heads, large eyes and triangular ears.

In the future, as a larger number of native Russian breeds become established in the West, we will no doubt learn more about them. It usually doesn’t take long; just 10 years ago even most experienced dog experts knew next to nothing about either the Black Russian Terrier or a whole host of other now well-established breeds. Perhaps in the future we’ll be able to view the different Laikas, Ovcharkas, and other Russian breeds at AKC shows with some pretense of expertise.

For now, these breeds are part of the large, unfolding tapestry that covers all the breeds that have been developing – sometimes over millennia, sometimes in just a few decades – in different parts of the world.