The borzoi (pronounced BOR-zoy) is an aristocratic dog, both in appearance and origin: They were bred as sprinters for hunting wolves in Russia, and eventually became a symbol of the Russian aristocracy. Borzois are tall, quiet, gentle dogs who do best with access to plenty of space for running. While not especially common in the United States, their long, elegant lines and silky coat are instantly recognizable and they were especially popular with the Hollywood stars of the 1920s and ’30s.
In the English-speaking world, the breed was called the “Russian wolfhound” until 1936, when it was renamed the borzoi, after the Russian word for “swift.”
The first thing you’ll notice about a borzoi is its size: These are not small dogs. Male pups are 28 inches and taller, weighing from 75–105 pounds, while the ladies are 26 inches and up, weighing in at 60–85 pounds. Streamlined and leggy, the borzoi was built for bounding through fields and high speeds (they can reach 35–40 mph).
With their silky fur, Roman-nosed faces, and long, gracefully curved tails, borzoi are known for their elegant looks (it’s what made them popular with early Hollywood stars as well as luxury advertising). According to the American Kennel Club breed standard, borzoi can come in any color or combination of colors and should have a medium-long coat that is silky and flat or wavy (but never wooly).
“They call them the aristocrat of dogs,” says Karen Staudt-Cartabona, a breeder with over 50 years of experience. “They’re very calm dogs and they’re very easygoing.” While active, she explains, they’re not playful the way other dogs can be, so she suggests avoiding the dog park with your borzoi because other dogs can run up and ram into them, causing stress or injury.
In general, borzoi are pack animals and get along well with other dogs, though they can be wary of strangers. It’s also possible for them to get along with cats if they’re brought into the home as a puppy and raised alongside the cat. Borzoi are gentle with children in general, though the Borzoi Club of America cautions that small children should be taught how to be careful with dogs—because borzoi are so large, they could accidentally knock down a small child. Older, less active borzoi could be a good companion for seniors—they don’t have the jumpy greeting tendencies that some other breeds have.
That calm demeanor extends to barking, too: Borzoi are not big barkers. “In fact, sometimes people will call me up and they'll say, ‘You know, I think there's something wrong with my borzoi, he never barks,’” Staudt-Cartabona says with a laugh.
Because borzoi are running dogs, a home with a large, fenced-in yard is best for the breed. Apartment-dwellers should be dedicated to providing regular, thorough exercise for a borzoi. They’re excellent companions for active families looking for a hiking dog or a running dog (always on a leash), and they’re quiet, calm companions at home—some would even say they’re couch potatoes who like to snuggle up and put their heads in your lap.
Borzoi are cold tolerant—historically, their coats protected them from the frigid Russian winters—and they don’t do particularly well in the heat. If you live in a warm climate, aim to exercise your dog at the coolest hours of the day, look for indoor dog parks, and offer cooling water playtime like a kiddie pool for your dog.
Grooming is a big part of caring for a borzoi: The American Kennel Club recommends brushing their coat once every couple of days, giving them occasional baths, and trimming their nails. The hair between their paw pads should also be trimmed regularly. The borzoi doesn’t have a strong doggy odor so frequent bathing isn’t required.
Training a borzoi requires some patience—while at times their stubbornness has earned them a low-intelligence reputation, that’s not true at all. The borzoi is smart, but also independent and strong-willed. They’re not quite so eager to please or accepting of commands like, say, a German shepherd might be. “They’re not jump-through-hoop-type dogs,” Staudt-Cartabona says. “I always say that they have sort of a cat temperament.” Gentle persuasion and patience are key. Finding a puppy through a reputable breeder ensures your dog is socialized before they come home.
In general, borzoi are relatively healthy dogs with a long life span for their size: 9–14 years. However, as with other sighthounds who have very low body fat, the borzoi can be sensitive to anesthesia. And like other deep-chested dogs, they can experience bloat, which is a medical emergency in which a dog’s stomach fills with air, cutting off blood flow. Dog owners should educate themselves on the symptoms of bloat and be prepared to take your dog to the veterinarian immediately.
Hip and shoulder dysplasia, genetic conditions that cause the joints to partially dislocate, are rarely found in the breed. Although if they do develop symptoms, while there is no cure, there are a variety of treatment options.
The borzoi’s roots can be traced back to the saluki dogs brought to Russia in the 13th century by Mongol invaders. This breed was crossed with hardier, Nordic dogs in the north to result in a cold-tolerant, fast-running breed. These borzoi ancestors were bred to accelerate fast in short distances to hunt in Russia’s small cleared fields and meadows.
By the 1800s, modern borzoi had been crossed with greyhounds for more speed, and Russian aristocrats used the dogs for massive hunts of wolves, foxes, and hares. These hunts could involve 100 dogs or more and ended in lavish feasts. Some of these aristocrats had kennels with more than 400 dogs. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 meant many of these nobles could no longer support such extravagance, and borzoi numbers declined.
But it was the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 that nearly wiped out the breed: As symbols of the czar and old guard of aristocracy, the dogs were killed in vast numbers. After the revolution, Staudt-Cartabona says, there were fewer than 10 borzoi left in Moscow.
Luckily, well before the turn of the century, the borzoi had been brought to England and the U.S., where they were called the “Russian wolfhound” until being officially renamed the “borzoi” in 1936. The word “borzoi” comes from the Russian word “borzyi,” which means “swift.” In the 1990s, Russian breeders reached out to Staudt-Cartabona. She had been breeding borzoi for decades with a direct lineage to old Russian stock, and was able to help reestablish the breed in Russia.
Borzoi’s reputation for elegance made it something of a sensation during the Art Deco era. It was frequently depicted in illustrations of the day alongside fashionably-attired women, including a notable print by Russian-French artist Erté.
Stars of the silver screen soon caught on: French actress Sarah Bernhardt had a borzoi (who was painted laying at her feet in a famous portrait that now hangs in the Petit Palais in Paris). Midcentury movie star Mae West had two borzois, and Swedish-American actress Greta Garbo of the 1920s and ‘30s also had a borzoi. Having a borzoi was the pinnacle of high fashion.
Today, you can find the borzoi in one particularly ubiquitous location: Go to any bookstore and take a look at the spines of the books. See a familiar figure? Yep, publishing house Alfred A. Knopf’s logo is a leaping borzoi.