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Breed Spotlight: The Borzoi

Updated: Jan 31

With an air of aristocracy and grace, the Borzoi is an increasingly popular companion from the sighthound group. Known for being gentle and affectionate with their family, these canines are some of the fastest couch potatoes you'll ever see; capable of running 36 miles per hour, and equally capable of taking 9-hour naps in the middle of the day.

A champion Borzoi at Westminster Dog Show

This breed originated during the 17th century in Russia for the explicit purpose of hunting wolves, hence their less common name Russian Wolfhound. Hunting with Borzoi was a favorite sport among the Russian elite, particularly the famous Romanov family. It wasn't unusual for 100 or more Borzoi and just as many servants to be employed in these extravagant affairs, which traditionally concluded with a great feast. Russian author Leo Tolstoy, himself a devoted Borzoi fan, even immortalized one of these grand spectacles in his novel War and Peace.        

A Group of Borzoi with a Cossack Hunter by F. Olaria

During the Russian Revolution it became increasingly dangerous for the Romanov family and their servants to leave the safety of their walled manor. As times became harder, and food scarcer, the family would send small groups of Borzoi out at night to hunt and bring back whatever they killed - anything from hare to small deer. Eventually the revolution caught up with the Romanovs and they were slaughtered, along with their servants and their sighthounds - the latter having become a symbol of the Romanov's power and elitism. Scant historical records exist of a small unnamed group of brave Russian elites close to the Romanov family who, at the behest of the Romanov's, began smuggling pairs of Borzoi out of Russia and into England. It is estimated that, if this indeed was the case, fewer than 50 individual Borzoi escaped the brutal Romanov slaughter. These refugee hounds were added to breeding programs that had recently begun in England and America with the few individuals that had previously been imported out of Russia and are the foundation stock of all living Borzoi today, thus preventing the extinction of the breed at the hands of the rebel Russian proletariat.

Borzoi, 1938 - Fashion magazine feature

Once in the UK and America the breed was referred to as the Russian Wolfhound. In America this changed in 1936, when after a long and spirited debate among the U.S. breed fanciers, the breed was officially rechristened the Borzoi, from the Russian word borzyi, meaning 'swift.' Most other English-speaking countries soon followed.

The seal of the Russian Kennel Federation

By all accounts, this incredible breed has barely changed from what Tolstoy described so movingly in his writings. Devoted, loving, gentle, calm, clownish - they are the epitome of a good-tempered family dog. They are not quite as rugged as they once were, however, and are now known for being sensitive to pain. My Borzoi is known for being quite dramatic, in fact, and will sometimes act as though she has hurt herself (a performance that is complete with pouting and holding up a foot as though it was injured) after hearing a loud sound - only dropping the act after receiving some hugs and words of encouragement. This contributes to one of the most important personality characteristics of a Borzoi to consider; they can be sensitive, and this includes being sensitive to corrections for misbehaving. Gentle verbal correction works best.

Speaking from experience, grooming this breed is straightforward and simple. They do shed quite a bit, especially twice a year when they are changing coats, but with regular brushing you can cut down quite a bit on the amount of falling hair. A bath once every 4 to 6 weeks is usually sufficient, and I'd recommend brushing at least twice a week. You don't need any fancy grooming equipment, just a tub, some basic shampoo and conditioner, a towel, and a decent comb and/or brush. Matting and knots don't happen often, but when they do they are usually very easy to get out of their fur. This really is a low maintenance coat, considering the type of coat that it is.

The only special things I would recommend doing in terms of grooming is paying close attention to their ears and the teeth. Clean the ears regularly, because many individuals are prone to yeasty ear infections in the ear canal. And you'll want to brush the teeth regularly as well, because like many sighthound breeds they can be prone to dental issues.

Borzoi are available in a wide array of colors!

Training this breed isn't too difficult if you are consistent and gentle in your direction. They, like most dogs, will go through a phase of testing your limits, but they do so to a much lesser degree than most dogs. They don't have a reputation for being geniuses by any means, but this means that they are more likely to look to you for direction or approval than more independent breeds like the Afghan Hound. Once trained, they tend to remain fairly obedient. However, this is not a candidate for off-leash walking. Being a sighthound means that they typically have a high prey drive for small prey animals such as squirrels, and if your Borzoi starts chasing a squirrel or rabbit they are unlikely to listen to your call for them to return. Many Borzoi die from getting away from their owners and being hit by cars, so don't risk it.

Exercise goes hand in hand with training. A well exercised puppy is a much more obedient one. But as they grow you will want to take a few precautions to keep them from hurting themselves. Keeping them from jumping too much can often keep them from getting sore legs, especially prior to the growth plates closing. You'll also want to limit the amount of running until the growth plates have closed, to avoid accidental injury. But once their bones are a bit more mature, running is the best way to tire them out!

As previously mentioned, they are becoming increasingly popular. Finding a Borzoi puppy isn't hard. But if you set out on this journey, make sure you only buy from an ethical breeder. A litter being AKC registered isn't enough. Make sure your breeder has health tested both parents for eyes, heart, thyroid and degenerative myopathy. This means that they would be OFA certified and CHIC qualified. Any breeder who does these health test will be happy to not just verbally confirm these with you but to show you the proof. You can see an example of a CHIC qualitied OFA certification from one of my Afghan Hounds here. If from properly health tested parents, they tend to be a healthy breed. A potential concern to keep in mind may be bloat, but this is less associated with a particular breed and more attributed to any breed with a deep chest (Borzoi, Great Dane, Doberman Pinscher, etc.). Also, try to minimize the opportunity for them to run into things when they are playing, because a collision can cause both short-term and long-term internal problems. I have the misfortune of being duped by a Borzoi breeder, and the puppy I purchased from her - while I am obsessed with the dog very much and am happy I have her - has her share of health issues, including a heart murmur, which keeps her from even being able to run the way she should be able to. A brother to mine also had his share of health issues (namely pleural effusion, which is the accumulation of excessive fluid in the space that surrounds the lungs) and was sadly euthanized at only 6 years old. Another littermate of theirs also had heart issues that resulted in her being euthanized at 4 years old. Please trust me when I tell you that health testing is important.

Proof that they aren't nearly as serious as they may look!

If you prefer a large dog, but would like something not quite as heavy, and if you don't mind (or possibly even like) regular brushing, and you are a gentle owner, the Borzoi may just be a good fit for you! Below are a few other resources for you to check out if you are curious about the breed standard (AKC) and if you would like to look into adding one to your family!

Other considerations:

  • They have a life expectancy of 9-14 years

  • They can be up to 28 inches tall at the shoulders, and up to 105 lbs

  • They have hovered between 89th and 101st in the AKC's "Popular Breeds" list over the last few years

Further Reading:

You can view all of our Breed Spotlight posts here.


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