An Outline of the History of the Borzoi


The Historical Period

The closer we come to the present, the more the role of the borzoi diminishes in the West, and stylized riding with hounds and rifle hunting with various breeds of sporting dogs begin to predominate. This becomes understandable if one takes into account population growth and the subdivision of land ownership.

I mentioned above borzoi breeds in the West. In the Middle Ages there were three breeds: the large bearded variety, the English wolfhound, and the greyhound. The large bearded variety is beginning to disappear more and more, and is used only in wolf hunting and only then with the aid of large coursing dogs grouped under the name "allanes," which does not argue in support of the ferocity and speed of borzois, far inferior in qualities to our Russian long-haired borzoi.

Among all peoples at this time the first palm in hunting should be given of course to the French, with respect to both the quality and number of breeds of hunting dogs and with respect to their extraordinary training. Hunting literature has existed in France since time immemorial and is striking in its diversity. In it we find works in prose and verse; even kings did not balk at working with their dogs and wrote whole treatises about hunting.

From the 16th to the late 18th centuries, hunting in France stood at its highest level of perfection. Everyone engaged in hunting, from the king down to the lowest nobleman; even the clergy took part, and all participated not as mere amusement but as a serious matter.

On the basis of all the foregoing, I shall adopt France as the present model for the hunting world in the West. Everything done there also was done in the rest of Europe, but with the difference that in France everything pertaining to hunting and dogs was done better than in other countries.

Someone might say to me that I am too much taken by the French as hunters and that I am forgetting the English. To this I would reply: the English as hunters are incomparably inferior to the French; they are perhaps more skillful dog breeders, but in no way are they hunters; all breeds of English dogs are no more than French breeds modified, and most of them came to England with the Normans, once again from France. Some of them, such as the hounds, have been ruined rather than improved by the English, having lost the magnificent voices of their French forebears.

We are given a better picture of hunting in France in these three centuries by Baron Noarman in his work History of Hunting in France, where he writes: "The 16th century in France begins under the reign of a hunter king who is a big dog-lover; Louis XII writes in his own hand a biography of his dog 'Riole,' which served him, truth be told, for 30 years.

"Francis I had detailed knowledge of and remembered the traits of every dog in his pack, and personally called by name those with which he wished to go hunting. He built a magnificent kennel at Fontainebleau. He and his son, Henry II, personally engaged in breeding to improve the breed."

The work on hunting by Charles IX proves to what extent he engaged in the upkeep and raising of dogs.

Henry III had about 2000 dogs.

Henry IV also personally observed his dogs, which can be seen from his extensive correspondence with various noblemen.

Louis XIII slept with his dogs.

Louis XIV, although he did not work with his dogs, nonetheless loved them very much and hunted constantly.

Louis XV personally kept a list of his dogs, and personally kept diaries during hunts, working on this much more than on affairs of state.

While kings spent this much time on and so enjoyed hunting and dogs, the nobility spent even more time on them, both out of their personal taste for hunting and out of imitation of the court.

The French hunting literature, which began in approximately 1394, continues to the present, and offers a broad, detailed picture of everything concerning hunting and various breeds of dogs and game fowl. One can see from these sources that all kinds of dog breeds from Europe, Asia, and Africa were brought to France. Beginning in the reign of Charlemagne we encounter in France Indian, Russian, Tatar, and other dogs.

All that could be had in this regard was had. For example, Saint Louis, on returning from his imprisonment, brought with himself a pack of eastern hounds closely similar to our Russian hounds of old. Charlemagne obtained dogs from Denmark, Russia, and what was then the Far East, from Caliph Alrashid, from Baghdad.

Analyzing the role played by the borzoi dog in the West during the Middle Ages, we will note readily that it never held the same place as among us in Russia; in the West it served more as an auxiliary animal in coursing with hounds, by the stylized method, especially the large bearded borzoi used in coursing of wolf and wild boar.

In describing medieval borzois, I shall allow myself to quote verbatim, in translation, all that Baron Noarman writes aout them in his book: "No single breed of dog was used in the Middle Ages for such diverse purposes as the borzoi."

They were used to hunt all kinds of animals, from deer to rabbit, even in falcon hunting, when the falcons knowcked down large birds such as cranes, herons, or great bustards (Otis tarda), borzois were released to assist them. "The large borzois designated to fight wild boar, the wolf, and other large animals were called 'pack borzois' ('levriers d'estric'), 'lateral borzois' ('levriers de flane'), and 'greeting borzois' ('levriers de fête').

"The first of these were released to chase after the animal as soon as it emerged onto the edge area. Lateral borzois were released laterally and greeting borzois were released head-on. The largest and strongest always were chosen as greeting borzois. Heavy, mongrel house dogs were used more for hunting of wild boar.

"Large pack borzois were mostly long-haired, and were gray, black, or red in color. They were not considered to be so beautiful as the smooth-haired dogs, but they were more persistent and easily tolerated cold, wet weather.

"These dogs were supposed to have a head longer than wide, large eyes full of fire, a long neck - a sign of speed, a long shoulder, a wide peak, strong and muscular ribs, a straight pastern, a lean and wiry leg, a small paw, and hard nails."

The best of the pack dogs were obtained from Brittany, Ireland, Scotland, and northern Europe.

The Irish wolfhound was considered the best and largest throughout all of Europe. Goldschmidt says that he saw many of these dogs, the largest of which was 4 feet tall (27 1/2 vershoks6) and was equal in height to a yearling calf.

The borzois of Sir Betam, which were not forbidden to enter the dining hall, extended their heads over the shoulders of those sitting at the table.

To judge by some skulls found in Ireland, the dogs to which these skulls belonged could have been from 36 to 40 English inches (about 21 vershoks) at the point of the shoulder. In Ireland, where wolves disappeared in the 18th century, these dogs were called "wolf-dogs." They were covered with stiff feathering in small curls, mostly iron-gray in color. This marvelous breed, quite rare in the last century, has been lost entirely of late.

Scottish deerhounds were similar to the Irish ones, differing only in having a smaller height and weaker extremeties.

Hare hounds always were considered the noblest. They all were smooth-haired, short, and lighter in appearance. Their colors were various: there were black dogs, dark mottled dogs, and white dogs, but the white ones were preferred over all others.

Gas de la Bigne describes for us in a poem the short-haired hare hound:

A muzzle like that of a wolf,
Ribs of a lion, neck of a swan,
A falcon's eye,
White in color,
Ears like those of a snake,
Lie on the head;
The shoulder of a wild goat,
The sides of a wild doe,
Nails of a deer, tail of a rat,
Hare's haunches and a "cat's paw."

Gaston Feb, who only transposed into prose the poetry of Gas, adds that "a good borzoi should have a long head, somewhat thickish and similar to the head of a pike; good canines and good teeth that do not push past each other, i.e., that are not in an overshot bite; straight pasterns, unbent, as on a bull, and the space between thighs with a good clearance.

These elegant beasts were inseparable pets of the nobility and noble ladies of the Middle Ages. Adorned with magnificent collars and heraldic cloth, they slept with their masters on their beds and accompanied them in all their movements and on their journeys. The Berryan nobility, which consisted of a society of knights with the goal of mutual love and support, adopted as its emblem the image of a borzoi whose collar bore the inscription: "All as one" ("tous un!"). The dogs of Brittany, Picardie, and Champagne and dogs imported from England, Spain, Portugal, and the East were considered best for hare coursing.

Mainly in the 14th and 15th centuries Gaston Feb, The Hunting Books of Herzogs d'Orleans, and Philippe de Comin praise Brittany dogs, with which they hunted for hare in the same way as with "pack dogs." Haubert's work of 1599, Hare Hunting With Borzois, highly praises the borzois of Picardie and Champagne, which "glide like the wind."

In the hunting books of Henry IV, hare hounds are shown to have been imported from Champagne, and since then they have constantly gone by this name in the royal hunts.

Selyankur says: "In France the best borzois come from Champagne and Picardie, provinces that abound in open fields where the hares are faster than elsewhere, and make it necessary to keep more purebred dogs of extraordinary speed and strength."

English wolfhounds became famous in the 14th century. In the memoirs of Frewasar, the duke of Lancaster sent as a present to the king of Portugal six English wolfhounds "suitable for any game." Louis XI received the same gift from Lord Hosting and Marshal Vielville from Lord Dudley in 1550.

Selyankur notes that the English surpass other hunters in the breeding and raising of wolfhounds and other dogs.

Spanish and Portugese borzois also were highly esteemed; there were two varieties of the latter: one variety, used for hunting on the plains, was considered the fastest in Europe; the other variety, for hunting in moutainous terrain, was distinguished by a shorter body and was sharper and faster on short runs.

Under Louis XII and Louis XIV, borzois became rare in France, so that they were purchased for royal hunts in Constantinople and other eastern countries.

A letter from the Marseille consul Pierre Bon to Charles IX mentions that the Algerian king had sent him horses, barbarian mares, lions, bears, and dark mottled borzois. These borzois probably were the famous "salukis," which breed is held sacred by the Arabs and with which they hunt jackals, gazelles, and antelopes.

Selyankur says that the borzois also include greyhounds, which are used to course rabbits.

They were called greyhounds only in France and Italy, which is in all likelihood their homeland. In England they are called "Italian greyhounds."

In southern France yet another variety of borzois was used in the recent era. It is believed that this variety came from interbreeding of borzois with hounds, and it is called the "charnegre borzoi," but it is something midway between borzois and hounds and may not be considered a true borzoi.

From 1844 hunting with borzois was finally banned in France, and this variety of these noble animals disappeared almost entirely there.

Speaking of the borzois of Western Europe, I must not fail to mention some coursing dogs of that time, since they were quite similar to borzois in both appearance and function.

As I stated above, these dogs were called "alanes," had a borzoilike appearance, and smooth hair but nearly the head of a bulldog, and were used for hunting bear, wild boar, and wolf; in the last case they were used together with borzois. The alanes were distinguished by their strength, height, and ferocity, so that they had to be kept constantly in muzzles except on the hunt. Their dirty-white hair color, small yellow eyes, and rosy nose do not force us to conjecture borzois, bu probably something quite close to modern bull terriers, except of enormous height - about 21 vershoks at the point of the shoulder.7

If we look closely at hunting with borzois in the West, we are struck by the minor role that there befell the borzoi compared with its role among us in Russia. In the West all attention is focused on hounds, and indeed the training of hounds reaches there the extreme required in strict stylized riding. Without such training, the hunter would almost always return with empty saddlebags.

But the long-haired dog, as it was practiced among us in Russia, did not exist in the West and could not even have existed with those types of borzois that the hunters there had.

Hare hunting with borzois was carried out on horseback with short-haired borzois not of the size that ours are. Foxes were not hunted at all; even hounds that hunted fox well were considered flawed and not to have fine scent.

I shall not undertake to describe the wolfdogs of that day, but I shall better describe a method of wolf coursing that gives a vivid idea of their speed and ferocity.

Howl-hunting8 and coursing of a whole family of wolves was not known. Young wolves usually were hunted with hounds, while adults first were surrounded by means of a "steamed dog" ("limier"), then the "island" was encircled either by a cordon or with nets, leaving only one place where the animal was directed toward the borzois.

When all was ready, the pack was unleashed on the animal's trail, and the cordon began to cry, trying to direct the wolf toward the packs. There usually were four packs of three dogs each: as soon as the wolf bounded out of the "island," one pack took up the chase; then one pack came from each of the two sides, and finally the fourth pack was released head-on. But it often was the case that even against 12 dogs the wolf escaped unharmed, as male dogs refused to take female wolves in heat; as a result, an effort was made to have several ferocious bitches in the packs. Many works on wolf hunting advise not to include in packs other than the first pack, the pack unleashed on the chase, borzois or the aforementioned allanes, or a crossbreed between them and borzois, in the belief that in this case the first pack has only to slow the animal a bit in order to give time to catch up to the coursing Great Danes, which were already making short work of the wolf better than the borzois.

It seems to me that the description of wolf hunting just given clearly proves the insubstantial character of the borzois of that time. They obviously possessed neither speed nor ferocity. Hunting a single wolf required so many preparations and entailed so many difficulties and costs. At least 12 borzois were needed to take a single animal; if they had had real borzois, they would not have needed anything like that many.

How far this hunt is from the dashing hunt that we have using real, fast, ferocious dogs, when the pack rushes forth on sight and the in-field borzoi handlers skillfully receive the full-grown wolf out from under one or two packs of borzois! What movement and what a rich take in comparison with Western hunters!

There is a whole throng of people and packs of dogs triumphally return home after tracking down a single wolf! Among us, in contrast, the hunt returns home having taken a whole pack, including full-grown wolves, yearlings, and newborn pups!

One need not keep either Great Danes or alanes; our dashing long-haired giants do it all, and so crack the hare in the chest that its paws just hop to and fro, and will take a full-grown wolf without a hitch, and even if the animal is larger, such as a bear or elk, they will show it no quarter!

What is surprising is this complete inability to "howl-hunt" wolves in the West, even though wolves were in great abundance there in the 16th and 17th centuries.

More than once the government had to take steps to eradicate them, because of the threat to the safety of not only livestock but humans as well.

Special governmental hunters called "capitaines lauvetiers" were established in France in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were given the duty of ridding the state of wolves by all possible methods; but despite this, wolf hunting in the form practiced then and now here in Russia is mentioned nowhere.

Where we should give full credit to Western hunters in general and to the French in particular is their surprising training of hounds.

Separate packs were kept for each animal; packs for hare did not chase any other animal, but only that for which they were kept.

An animal, once roused, was not abandoned by the dogs, even if exactly the same animals turned up right before their eyes. They only chased the first animal, and dogs who strayed from the trail, once adopted, were systematically culled from the packs and, their other good traits not withstanding, were not allowed to breed.


6Translator's note: One vershok is about 1.75 inches, or 4.4 centimeters

7Translator's note: The Russian phrase translated here as "at the point of the shoulder" is "v naklone," which in modern Russian literally means "at the slope." The translation used here is inferred from context.

8Translator's note: "Howl-hunting" is a coined translation for a type of hunting in which one or more dogs give out a wolf-howl to attract wolves for the hunt.


The Historical Period in Russia >>>

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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