An Outline of the History of the Borzoi


The Historical Period

The first historical reports that we have date to Egyptian, Assyrian, and Persian monuments on which pictures of dogs used in those days for hunting were made fairly well.

In general one cannot say that hunting of fast-running animals was in full swing. Nearly all pictures of hunts show us big animals such as the lion, tiger, bear, wild ass, and so forth. We think we see on Egyptian statues pictures of a dog reminiscent of the borzoi, but a somehow strange borzoi: almost without loins, with enormous prick ears and an upright tail fully bent into a loop onto the back; the dog was smooth-haired.

To judge by the Assyrian and Persian monuments, one ought not to think that the borzois were in full swing there; all pictures of hunts show skirmishes with lions and in general with large animals, and the dogs involved in these skirmishes have nothing in common with borzois, but are reminiscent of crude coursing dogs, something like Great Danes or mastiffs; in antiquity these dogs were brought from India and called "Indian coursing dogs," which Xenophon mentions in his writings about hunting.

According to the first written data, we see a mention of the dog as early as in the Bible [and] in the books Veda and Zend Avesta, where the dog is man's companion and friend, a completely domesticated animal.

The first detailed report on hunting that has come down to us was written by Xenophon; he was the first to give us some integral view capable of giving us an understanding of hunting in ancient Greece. But once again he says nothing about hunting with borzois, and the borzoi dog apparently was unknown to ancient Greeks for a very long time, although all of Xenophon's writings about hunting pertain to rabbit hunting. That hunting with borzois did not exist in those times is clearly visible from the following words of this ancient writer: "The dog rarely surpasses it [the hare] in leg speed, and if the hare is caught, this occurs by chance and not out of the design of its body, because of all animals having a size identical to it, none compares with it in running." Before this, he says that a good dog on the trail of a hare should spin its tail, and having driven the hare from its lair, the dog should chase it with its bark; this directly indicates a hound and not a borzoi.

Describing deer hunting, Xenophon mentions Indian dogs, saying: "For deer Indian dogs are needed; these dogs are strong, tall, fast afoot, and not without fervor, and with these traits they are able to work"; but here too we are not dealing with borzois, for later, in describing the hunt, he says that these dogs are able to catch a doe but not an adult. Not much speed is needed to catch a suckling!

In boar hunting, [Xenophon] mentions Indian, Cretan, Lockrisian, and Laconian dogs, but here too there is nothing about borzois, since hunting using these animals was not practiced without nets, traps, and snares.

In general, one may note that in those days nets, snares, and traps played the primary role in the hunt, and dogs were used only to find the animal and, with the help of a person, they drove it into the nets.

Coursing dogs, with a borzoilike appearance, which were known in antiquity, were used only as being able to enter into battle with an animal when the animal, tired by the chase, was coming to a stop.

The best dogs were obtained from Epeirus and were called "molosses"; information on them that has come down to us is as follows: this dog was of enormous height, and in appearance was quite similar to the "allanes"3 used in tracking down wild boars in Western Europe in the Middle Ages. They had a prick ear and long feathering, chiefly on the shoulders and neck, in a sort of lion's mane; it may be conjectured that this was a large sheepdog, since the portrait just described by me closely approaches our Russian sheepdog, which exists throughout southern Russia; in any event, this dog was a coursing dog and not a borzoi.

To what extent coursing with borzois was little practiced by and nearly unknown to the ancients is clear from the work of Ariane, who cautions modern hunters in their manner to take an animal by cunning, using nets and traps, and not by open force; he openly says that all these traps and nets only prove the unfitness of dogs and that, if one has good Gaulish borzois, one does not have to use either nets or snares, since no animal can escape their speed.

In the Roman Empire we see that hunters had dogs - Gaulish, German, and Scottish; they all were renowned for their speed and, to judge by the descriptions, were true borzois.

In all likelihood their type was quite similar to bearded Scottish deerhounds and Irish wolfhounds, but had nothing in common with our long-haired Russian borzoi. In general, under the Roman emperors the breeds of dogs were quite diverse, since the power and majesty of the empire allowed them to be brought from everywhere. All these breeds interbred, and one cannot say that the Romans had any breed that they developed and adapted for local hunting in Italy. To judge by all available data, the ancients did not have good hunting dogs.

In the late stages of the empire, hunting finally disappeared and was considered too tiring an activity for the effete patricians; it was replaced by simple chasing of various animals in the circus, and not hunting dogs but coursing dogs of various breeds were used. Here what was important was not their hunting traits but simple strength, height, and the ability to fight with large predators released into the arenas.

We find the first clear indication of borzois in a description of the hunt among the Gauls by the Roman writer Ariane; according to him, the Gauls conducted the hunt just as we do; an "island"4 was surrounded with packs of borzois, which were unleashed on an animal chased by hounds.

Ariane calls these borzois "vertragi," and praises their speed. According to him, these were very beautiful dogs, among which some were single-color and others skewbald; they later were called "veltres leparari," or "harehounds."

They evidently were used only to course hares, as writers of the day were noted for their accuracy, such as Ariane, do not mention the coursing of any animals other than hares.

More detailed information on the borzois of the Romans is not available, although one letter by the Roman prefect Simmach of 364 A.D. has come down to us. In it he thanks his brother Flavius for sending him some Scottish dogs ("canes scotici"), which he exhibited in coursing at the circus and which frightened the public with their size; but to what breed these dogs belonged and to what they were similar are unknown. One may only conjecture that they were Irish wolfhounds, which are known for their size.

The Germans, good hunters, had roughly the same borzois as the Gauls; we can assess their dogs on the basis of Frank laws that set fines for theft or killing of various dogs. A fine of about 1000 rubles in our money was paid for stealing or killing a borzoi; among the Burgundians, moreover, the thief had publicly to give the stolen dog a kiss under the tail.

Although this does not give us any idea of the appearance of the borzoi, it does prove how highly it was esteemed among these peoples.

Among the Franks we find properly organized packs of hounds, but hunting was fully developed only under Charlemagne, who, according to the ancient chronicles, had countless packs of dogs: hounds, borzois, and Great Danes for fighting bear, bison, and elk.

As far as we can judge by available data, all large borzois of Charlemagne belonged to the bearded group and came from Ireland. The chronicler Saint Gill, an old monk, writes the following of the strength and ferocity of these dogs: "In reciprocation to the ambassador of Baghdad from Arun-Alrashid, who brought to Aachen an elephant for the emperor, Charlemagne sent him borzois. Having learned from ambassadors that these indomitable animals enter into battle with any beast, the next day the caliph went hunting for lion, taking with him the Franks who had arrived with their dogs. The dogs fearlessly chased the lion and seized it so fiercely that the Franks had to come galloping up and take it with their swords." Of course, I cannot vouch how accurate these reports are, but it should be assumed that the dogs probably were large and vicious. As we approach the Middle Ages, the varieties of borzois in the West becoming increasingly defined and clarified; at length, it is clear, we may note there were three kinds of borzois:

  1. A large bearded dog used in hunting wolves and big game in general;
  2. The smooth-haired borzoi, which is entirely similar to the modern one and which was used for hunting of hare; and
  3. The Italian greyhound, which was kept more by ladies and used in coursing rabbits.

In general, in the Middle Ages the dog is first in the life of the court of the day; only falcons could compete with them.

In all works on hunting of that period, the borzoi is mentioned as a house dog that was allowed to climb everywhere, even onto its master's bed. In some poems one can see that ladies complained of their husbands' borzois; upon their return from the hunt, dirty dogs crawled onto the furniture and beds, soiling both. Borzois were adorned with expensive collars made of gold and silver; special covers were sewn for them from the most costly materials embroidered in gold. Poets wrote verse in their honor, praising their speed and beauty.

Just how beloved dogs in general and borzois in particular were at that time can be seen from contemporaneous descriptions of the life of the noblemen of the day.

We know that Saint Louis ordered that his dogs be beaten to forewarn him thereby of his mother's arrival when he was in the room of Queen Margarita. The king's pack usually slept on his bed. This proves how close these animals were to their masters. Dogs were considered the very best gift.

Louis the Eleventh agreed to release from imprisonment the noble German knight Wolfgang von Payagein only if he could receive borzois of the Bossu breed, and Wolfgang long refused to pay this ransom, preferring to sit in captivity rather than to part with some of his borzois.

Not only men loved their borzois to this degree: ladies had their own hunts and their own beloved borzois who lived with them. For instance, the mother of Francisco the First always had her pack of eight borzois with her.

At the start of the 16th century the hunt in Western Europe took a different direction; big game such as the bison, bear, elk, and so forth vanished, and deer, the wild goat, the wild boar, the wolf, fox, and hare remained; hunting with borzois also is falling into decline and only stylized riding with hounds remains.

Moving from west to east, I shall remain silent about Russia for the time being, as I shall consider the Russian borzoi separately, and I shall turn directly to Asia, about which we have the reports of Marco Polo and reports in translations of the Chinese writings of the monk Ioakinea.

In 1286 the Venetian nobleman Marco Polo journeyed through Tataria and other countries of the East; the reports he made on dogs and hunting among eastern peoples are practically the only ones that we have, and they all relate to the court of the great Kubla Khan, who ruled nearly all of Asia and a large part of Russia at that time.

The reports communicated by Marco Polo contain one strange item, namely utterly complete silence about borzois; the description of the hunts of the great Khan mentions hounds, mastiffs, and bulldogs, even lions and lynxes used like borzois, but borzois proper are not mentioned, although one must not suppose that they did not exist in Khan's hunt, which was famous for the splendor and abundance of game animals and fowl.

The reports of the monk Ioakinea mention, in the description of Chibin Province, that that country bred large dogs, and the following is reported later in the description of Chesha of the East: "Chinese tropps penetrated into western Turkestan, and then borzoi hounds, among other things, appeared at the court."

As one can see, all these reports are direly inadequate, and one cannot decide directly to which breed the aforementioned dogs belonged.

One can only surmise that they all belonged to the eastern breed of the borzoi.

One should not think at all that te same kind of long-haired dog that have existed at some time in the east; everything indicates this: the vast steppe spaces, the wide development of the hunt with game fowl and cheetahs - all these factors indicate that hunting with borzois was conducted there in the same way as now, i.e., from horseback.

The breed of eastern borzois is extremely persistent, occurs throughout all of Asia, and in all likelihood has existed a very long time; one can say almost affirmatively that in ancient times it was similar to modern dogs.

The hunts of the eastern rulers were distinguished by their majesty and were for the most part directed toward big game, as we see from the descriptions by Marco Polo, which talk about hunts for bear, lion, wild donkeys, and so forth, but there is nothing about hunting for wolf, fox, and hare; if such game was pursued, it was with golden eagles and not borzois.

Today we do not see that among native peoples hunting with borzois is conducted other than from horseback or that borzois are kept in large quantity. Some peoples, such as the Turkmens, highly treasure their dogs but do not keep many of them. A Turkmen will travel 200 or 300 versts5 to mate his bitch with a famous male, but keep three or four dogs while of course strictly safeguarding their pure breeding. All these dogs are distinguished by their speed and small size, but they are not ferocious; in general, their purebred appearance is quite apparent to the eye.

Whence the eastern borzoi acquired the characteristic ear "under cloaks," as they say, is hard to decide, but one may conjecture that it increased and hung because of lack of practice in hearing, and indeed: hearing is not especially well developed in all eastern borzois in comparison with vision, which is distinguished by sharp-sightedness and, so to speak, by the ability quickly to find game.

In Zapiski Okhotnika Vostochnoi Sibiri [Memoirs of a Hunter of Eastern Siberia], Mr. Cherksov talks about Mongolian dogs that have nothing in common, in terms of appearance, with the eastern borzoi but which possess great speed, ferocity, and strength; these dogs belong to northern China and our Southeastern Siberia; I shall not discuss it now, since it will fall under the special group of the Siberian dog.

African borzois, the "salukis," differ from the eastern borzoi in their enormous height and semihanging ears. In paintings Goras Vernet gives us a superb idea of this breed; it is quite similar to the common thick-haired breed, but is distinguished by its ferocity and height.

This breed is very highly esteemed among the Arabs and is used for hunting gazelles, hare, and wild boar, which thoroughly proves both its speed and its ferocity, although the Arabs also hunt on horseback.

As I stated above, in all likelihood the "saluki" is not of East Asian origin but more likely of European origin, and entered Africa through Spain, during the Mauritanian dominion - an assertion also proven by the fact that the best of these dogs are bred in Morocco, and in general in countries to the west on the northern shore of Africa. These dogs are so valuable that in former times African sovereigns sent them only to the Spanish and French courts, as royal gifts and only in limited numbers.

We have no reports at all on coursing in other countries of the world, and in all likelihood it never existed there, since we know nothing of the borzois of America and Australia, which do not exist there, and probably never have existed. In general, Asia is the cradle of the borzoi, as it also is of all mankind.


3 In the Russian text, two spellings are used for this breed: "allane" and "alane." Since no available French reference gives either spelling, the translation mirrors the spelling in Russian.

4Translator's note: An "island," as used here, is an isolated small forest.

5Translator's note: One verst is approximately 3500 feet, or 1.06 kilometers.


The Historical Period II >>>

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Dogs of Today - the Russian Wolfhound or Borzoi

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Excerpt from Hutchinson's Encyclopedia

Excerpt from the Kennel Encyclopaedia

Freeman Lloyd on Borzoi

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Hunting Dogs: Sighthounds and Scenthounds
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J.B. Thomas Says American Borzoi Lead the World
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An Outline of the History of the Borzoi
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RWCA's History (1930)

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the Hare and Many Foes

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

the Russian Wolfhound
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the Russian Wolfhound or Borzoi
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Twentieth Century Dog - Borzoi Section

Watson on Borzoi


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