The Russian Wolfhound: The Characteristics and Training of the Aristocrat of the Dog Family - as Hunter and Companion

This article written by James Watson, appeared in the September 1904 edition of Country Life in America Magazine

Beyond any question, the aristocrat of the canine family is the Russian wolfhound, otherwise the borzoi or barzoi, which is the Russian name for coursing dog. He has sundry names, in fact; and in this country we were content enough to call him borzoi or barzoi, but the supporters of the breed got into such a mixed-up squabble as to whether it should be borzoi, barzoi, psovoi or psovi that I suggested we adopt the name of Russian wolfhound until there was a general consensus of opinion in favor of some other one; and as the fight died out without any decision, Russian wolfhound it has remained in this country.

The Russian wolfhound belongs to a large family, the varieties of which differ in a slight degree just as in the case of terriers. They had one common foundation-stock back in the misty past of ancient Iranian history and then, being distributed in various parts of the surrounding country, became changed by selection and climatic influences.

There is a refined elegance coupled with the indication of speed and strength about the Russian wolfhound which no other breed possesses. He has not the speed of the English greyhound, and it is said he has not its endurance, but the latter - the perfection of symmetry in the animal kingdom - lacks the air of refinement and "caste" which the borzoi possesses.

There are two points of view from which to consider this dog: as a hunter, and as a companion. In the land of his birth he is the former as well as the latter, while in western Europe he is merely the ornamental companion that he is in eastern America. In the coyote section of our continent he can be made as useful as he is in Russia, and can assist in clearing off that scourge of the cattle ranches. When the borzoi was first brought to this country he was hailed as a natural-born wolf-destroyer, and we started business under the impression that all one had to do was to let a borzoi see a coyote and the latter's death-warrant was as good as executed. The result was a natural failure, made all the more absurd by the theatrical shooting of one of the uneducated dogs by his owner, who "would not own a cur."

Setters and pointers have to be trained, hounds and beagles are properly entered, sheep-dogs are shown what to do by older heads at the business, and it is the same with the borzoi. The best grown wolves of those caught in Russia are taken alive to the kennels for the purpose of this training of the young dogs, which are taught how to pin the wolf by a hold back of the ear, in such a manner that the quarry cannot use his teeth on the dog. It's like the grasp close below the head of a deadly snake, rendering it helpless. Not until the young borzoi is an adept in getting this particular hold is he considered fit for use in the field. This, it will be seen, is a very different thing from a roungh-and-tumble fight between a dog or dogs and a wolf. It means training.

In the kennels of the Czar nearly a score of men are kept for the purpose of attending to and training the young candidates, of which there are sometimes half a hundred, in addition to as many developed dogs; and in the kennels of the nobility and landed proprietors the same method is carried out and the dogs are properly entered at the game. Of course, it takes a dog of high courage to do the work, for there must be no faltering. In other words, the dog must be game and "hard-bitten," as we say of a terrier; and such dogs are somewhat too "scrappy" for family use. American purchasers have no occasion to worry about that, however, for as this high courage is the result of education and encouragement, without it they are docile and obedient and fit companions for the ladies of the house, a role which they are preeminently fitted to fill by reason of their handsome and unique appearance.

In the sections of Russia where wolves are hunted, the undulating plains are here and there dotted with reed beds, which form a harbor for wolves and other game. These reed beds are drawn by foxhounds, the wolfhounds being kept in leash outside. When a wolf steals out from the reeds he is given a clear start of some two hundred yards, and then one or more, commonly two, wolfhounds are slipped. If only one, it is of course a strong and well-tried hound, fully able by his weight and power to hold the wolf. The latter races straight away without any of the doubling and twists of a hare or rabbit, so that once the hound ranges alongside, which he does within from half a mile to a mile, it is simply a question of getting the hold by the ear which prevents the wolf using his teeth. The mounted chasseur in charge of this particular dog has meanwhile been racing after him, and as soon as he reaches the dog and quarry alights and, getting astride of the wolf, proceeds to put on a stout muzzle, and not until this is securely fastened is the hound taken off. It is in this retention of the hold when once secured that the borzoi differs from the greyhound, which is said to be not always so reliable. When two hounds are liberated they range up on either side, each getting a similar hold behind the ear. The art in this case is to slip two hounds perfectly matched in speed.

An English officer who served some time in the Russian service, and who had an opportunity to see the Czar's wolfhounds in the field, mentions particularly a dog named Dimitri which was slipped at a large black wolf, which he very speedily caught. Over they went as usual, but when the dust had cleared away Dimitri was holding the wolf ready for the chasseur to muzzle. At dinner that evening the question of whether a borzoi could face and pin a wolf single-handed was discussed, with the result that on the following morning the largest wolf was liberated in an enclosed yard and Dimitri sent in at him. The wolf at once flew at the dog, and over and over they went; but when they ceased struggling Dimitri had the neck-hold and there was not a mark on him in return.

The claim, often made, that this ear-hold is peculiar to the borzoi, is incorrect. It is the hold of the Scotch deerhound on the stag, and, if we had any means of ascertaining, I think we would find that the old Irish wolfhound had the same mark to aim at. This I say because I am of the opinion that the Irish wolfhound, which was a first cousin to the Scotch deerhound, descended from the old parent stock brought originally from Western Asia in the old, old days. Greyhounds and dogs of that form came from there, and did not just "grow," like a lot of Topsies, in spots all over the early inhabited and uninhabited world. Selection to supply local needs, coupled with climatic influences, caused varieties to be developed; and the fancies of owners and breeders, or in some cases the prepotency of a particular dog, in originating certain characteristics, which were subsequently bred for until type became definitely fixed, is what caused variety in breeds.

The borzoi is perhaps best described to the uninitiated by saying that he is a tall, long-coated greyhound, very narrow in body, with a long, narrow head, deep chest, arched back and well cut up in the loin. This, however, is only the outlined rough sketch, and there is a good deal more before you have the finished picture. The head is exceedingly long and narrow, the muzzle apparently being carried out to an excessive length. There is no stop between the eyes, but immediately above them there is an angle, the line of skull not being a continuation of the line of the muzzle. It must not be too pronounced an angle, neither must there be too much of an indication of a Roman nose. The skull is carried well out to the occiput, which should not be too prominent, however.

While the profile outline of the skull is straight, viewed from the front, it should not be flat but oval, thus adding to the appearance of narrowness. The eyes, even with this formation of skull, must not be set obliquely, and they are therefore rather close together, are almond-shaped and should be dark in color. The ears are well set back on the head and are thrown back like a greyhound's; the smaller and thinner in leather they are so much the better, as nothing detracts so much from the dog's quality as a heavy, lop ear. The Russians seem to fancy the ear being "tulip," erect, when thrown forward; but, while there is no great objection to that, yet the semi-erect, with the tip falling forward, is a more symmetrical form and will probably be preferred in this country.

The borzoi is somewhat short in the neck, and, although all the standards call for the usual sloping shoulders, it always looks to me as if the shorter neck was the result of straight shoulders, and very few borzois that I have seen extended run with that closeness to the ground so noticeable in the well-built greyhound. Perhaps their very pronounced depth of chest has something to do with this jumping action when extended, but to my mind the borzoi is liable to be a somewhat upright-shouldered dog. The chest is narrow and the fore legs straight and, when seen from the front, not heavy-boned, but flatter in bone viewed from the side. The back is arched, not with a hump but with a symmetrical outline, and with the loin well cut up. Females do not show this so much and are usually flatter backed. There is not the wealth of muscle along the back one sees in the English greyhound, but the borzoi should be well supplied and should be strong in loin and hind quarters. In the position of the hind legs the borzoi frequently differs from the greyhound in having a cut-in from the hock to the foot. He stands more on his hind legs. This is a formation affected by the whippet racing men, who believe it tends to speed. The hocks are strong and the feet must be good in the pad, with toes close and well arched, the center toes being longer, forming what is known as the hare-foot.

Now we come to coat and color. There are preferences and individual choices here, and, with the exception of the coat being woolly, you can please yourself as to flat, wavy or curled. On the head, ears and fore legs the hair is smooth and short; the neck and chest should be well coated, the hair having an inclination to curl about the frill. On the rest of the body and tail it should be plentiful. Our exhibitors brush the hair the reverse way to give it an appearance of length, but that is apt to make it look scant and open, and no other dog with this kind of coat is shown in that manner. It is really a high quality setter coat, and I think should be shown flat. The tail feather is longest toward the end, and slightly bushy like a collie's, and the tail is very apt to be carried straight down between the hocks when the dog is standing.

With regard to color, we read a great deal of the objection in Russia to black markings; yet such dogs win there under good judges, showing that the statements against this color are individual opinions. Argos, the black-and-tan dog that won in America ten years ago, was a winner in England, and, if I mistake not, also won in Russia, but of that I am not certain. However, it is pretty well conceded that this is an objectionable color, and it can also be stated that a number of Russian owner object to black markings. The customary colors are white and white with patches of fawn, orange, slate-blue and grey brindle. Fawn dogs are sometimes seen abroad. So far as attractiveness is concerned, the almost solid white dog, especially if you get the glistening silky white, is preferable, but in a dog presumably useful and not merely a fancy breed it is a debatable point as to how far color should prevail in comparison with conformation and quality. I believe in getting the good dog, unless the recognized standard says certain colors are to be thrown out.

The height of the borzoi has been increased considerably, if we are to accept recently published measurements as correct. Krilutt, the most successful dog shown in England twelve years ago, was thirty inches at the shoulder, fair measure. Four of the Duchess of Newcastle's recent champions were claimed to be as follows: Velsk, 31 3/4; Velasquez, 32 1/2; Tsaretsa, 31 1/2; Tatrana, 30 1/4, the latter two being females. Caspian, who recently died and for whom $3,500 was refused, is said to have stood 34 1/2 inches when "standing smartly." Height in a dog kept as a companion is right enough, when it comes to such breeds as the St. Bernard, borzoi and mastiff, providing you do not lose type, but in the case of the workman, the dog kept for coursing, whether it be greyhound or wolfhound, it is not essential and the medium-sized dog is likely to be the better one, as he is liable to be better built, and there are more of that size to select from.

Borzois are by no means plentiful enough to make them cheap dogs, the demand being still in excess for the supply; hence they bring good prices, fifty dollars for a dog puppy being the customary quotation, while choice ones are more expensive. In case the purchaser selects his own puppy, it will be well to choose the longest-headed one, with plenty of bone and neat ears. A probability of size may also be surmised by a tail of good length; but, after all, size depends very much upon plenty of good food and exercise, for without these a puppy will be stunted and outgrown by a less promising one that is better reared.

When you get your puppy, bear in mind that he will not grow on admiration. He wants to be fed early and often. If he gets milk, let it be unskimmed, straight from the cow, and a beaten egg in it will give it more of the strength of a bitch's milk. Meat is also most essential.

Coursing and Racing Dogs
(Freeman Lloyd)

(not exclusively Borzoi)

Coursing Excerpt from The Beasts of the Prairies

Dog of All the Russias
(W. Haynes)

Dogs of Today - the Russian Wolfhound or Borzoi

Dogs That Hunt Bears and Wolves (Excerpt)
Freeman Lloyd

Excerpt from Hutchinson's Encyclopedia

Excerpt from the Kennel Encyclopaedia

Freeman Lloyd on Borzoi

Hound of the Czars
(Walter Dyer)

Hunting Dogs: Sighthounds and Scenthounds
(L. P. Sabaneev, 1899)

Hunting Large Game Excerpt

J.B. Thomas Says American Borzoi Lead the World
(Micheline de Zutter)

An Outline of the History of the Borzoi
Baron G.D. Rozen, 1891

Ruby de Bolshoy
(Melanie Richards)

Russian Wolfhounds of Yesterday and Today
(Freeman Lloyd)

RWCA's History (1930)

the Borzoi
(H. W. Huntington)

the Borzoi or Russian Wolfhound
(Major Borman)

the Hare and Many Foes

the Russian Borzoi (excerpt from "Dogs From All Angles")

the Russian Wolfhound
(James Watson)

the Russian Wolfhound or Borzoi
(W. Johnston)

Twentieth Century Dog - Borzoi Section

Watson on Borzoi


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