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
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
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
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.