The Borzoi originated centuries ago in Czarist Russia, where they were bred by aristocrats as coursing sighthounds. The Borzoi’s predecessors are thought to have come from Egypt and include the long-coated, smooth-faced Russian Bearhound, the coursing hounds of the Tatars, the Owtchar, a tall Russian sheepdog and other ancient sighthound breeds. Whatever the mix, by 1260 the sport of hare coursing was documented in connection with the Court of the Grand Duke of Novgorod. The first Borzoi standard was written in 1650 and apparently did not differ much from the standard today. According to the American Kennel Club, “from the time of Ivan the Terrible in the mid-1500s to the abolition of serfdom in 1861, hunting with Borzoi was the national sport of the aristocracy.”
During this period, great rural estates with hundreds of serfs and thousands of acres were devoted to breeding, training and hunting with the Borzoi. The breed was pampered and promoted by Russian royalty on a grand scale unparalleled in the development of any other breed. Guests, horses, dogs, tents, kitchens and carriages came by special trains to attend ceremonial “hunts.” More than a hundred Borzoi in matched pairs or trios, with additional foxhound packs and riders on horseback, made up the primary hunting party, with “beaters” on foot to flush out the game - usually a wolf. The Borzoi would pursue the wolf, and the horsemen would pursue the Borzoi, until the dogs captured, pinned and held their quarry. Typically, the huntsmen would leap off their horses, grab, gag and bind the wolf, and then either kill it or set it free. These extravagant affairs involved elaborate attire, feasting and festivity.
Several Borzoi were sent as gifts to Princess Alexandra of Britain in 1842, and the breed was exhibited at the first Crufts World Dog Show in 1891. In 1863, the Imperial Association was formed to protect and promote the old-style Borzoi. Many (if not most) present-day American bloodlines are traceable to the dogs of breeders who were members of this club. Most notable among these were the Grand Duke Nicholas, uncle to the Czar and field marshal of the Russian armies, and Artem Boldareff, a wealthy Russian aristocrat. The first Borzoi to come to America was allegedly brought from England in 1889 by a fancier of the breed living in Pennsylvania. The first American to travel to Russia and directly import Borzois was C. Steadman Hanks, the Massachusetts founder of the Seacroft Kennels in the 1890s. In 1903, Joseph B. Thomas of Valley Farm Kennels made several trips to Russia to obtain specimens of the breed that played a key role in the development of American Borzoi pedigrees, including dogs from the Perchino Kennels owned by the Grand Duke Nicholas and from the Woronzova Kennels owned by Artem Boldareff.
The Borzoi Club of America was formed in November of 1903, then called the “Russian Wolfhound Club of America.” The breed standard was approved at a meeting held during the Westminster Kennel Club dog show in February of 1904, and the breed club was elected to membership in the American Kennel Club in May of that year. The official breed standard was formally adopted in 1905 and is essentially the same today, with minor revisions made in 1940 and 1972. The breed’s name was changed from Russian Wolfhound to Borzoi in 1936, and the parent club’s name was changed to the Borzoi Club of America that same year.
Today, this breed is largely unchanged from its Russian ancestors in both appearance and ability. Borzois are still used by farmers in the Western United States to ward off coyotes. They excel in AKC lure coursing competitions and in the conformation ring. Above all, Borzois are graceful, glamorous, gentle and devoted companions.
The average life expectancy of the Borzoi is between 10 and 14 years. Breed health concerns may include bloat, hip dysplasia, cervical vertebral malformation (“wobbler” syndrome), osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) and progressive retinal atrophy. Other ocular conditions with a suspected breed predisposition include plasma cell infiltration of the nictitating membrane (plasmoma), cataracts, retinopathy of Borzois and other ocular defects.