The Borzoi Coat
Copyright © Yvonne and Rey McGehee 2004.

"Style is not something applied. It is something that permeates. It is of the nature of that in which it is found, whether the poem, the manner, ... the bearing of a man. It is not a dress."
                                                                                                            Wallace Stevens

      The Borzoi coat is unique in the dog world, not only in the delightful feel of its silky, thick, rabbit-fur-like texture, but in its pattern of growth on the dog as well. Like most parts of the Borzoi, the coat comes from function. The coat had to be warm, to protect the dog in the cold of Russian winters; therefore it developed with a plushy deciduous undercoat in winter. But the coat couldn't be too warm, because on the other hand, the dog has to be able to dissipate heat while and after running. Heat dissipation is a fundamental and primary consideration for any athletic animal. This essential ability to dissipate heat generated by running automatically imposes limits on both coat quantity and body size; excessive amount of coat would be a serious, actually life-threatening problem for the running dog. The borzoi coat developed to have a unique pattern, with a thick protective neck mane of moderate length, longer thick coat on the tail and back of the hindquarters  for warmth and protection when lying in the curled position in cold weather, and to be shorter on the sides of the body to help prevent overheating when active. It is a beautifully balanced fulfillment  of  required qualities.
      The coat could not be too long, or of a cottony texture, because if it were,  it would pick up sticks and other vegetation as the dog ran. An overly long or cottony coat would quickly disable a dog in the field, tangling him into a thicket of useless immobility. The wrong kind of coat can result in more than a few leaves in the feathering; it can become an immobilizing disaster requiring gardening clippers and scissors and significant effort to free the dog.
      The coat should also be somewhat self cleaning, so the mud of  spring and fall will tend to fall off. These requirements favored a coat that was silky, dirt-shedding, resistant to matting in texture and of moderate length. The hunters of old Russia did not want to spend many hours grooming their Borzoi, nor did they have the blow dryers and coat conditioners and shampoos and grooming tables we have today.
       Their world left us with a wonderful, unique, patterned coat, of moderate length, silky in texture with a thick plush deciduous undercoat useful in winter and shed out in summer. This close-fitting coat allows the beauty of the shapely borzoi body and it's muscle definition to be seen. It is our good fortune that this coat also happens to be one of the most pleasurable to the touch in the canine world. Lucky us; beneficiaries of  past pragmatism, we now get to touch that delightful silky plushness. Fortunately, this unique original coat can still be seen, and felt, today. But unfortunately, it is being displaced.  Excessive length and quantity of coat, coarse rather than silky dirt-shedding texture, and the lack of a seasonal shed; all are to be found in borzoi today; and all are alterations of the original silky, plush, patterned, close-fitting deciduous borzoi coat. These alterations in the direction of more, longer, coarser, and  year-round parallel the increases in quantity and loss of pattern the afghan hound coat has experienced. They are all alterations away from the more specialized and toward the more common and generic. Do we really want to trade in this incredibly luxurious, plush, form-fitting borzoi coat for a coarse, generic, form-obscuring and at times even sheeplike transformation? Do we really want our borzoi to go the way of the afghan hound regarding coat?

      If not, we need to pay some attention to what we may be losing.  Here are some descriptions of the Borzoi coat.

      "Complete Manual of the Coursing Hunt" by P.M. Giebin, Moscow 1891.

      The Psovoi borzoi coat.

      "Coat long, about 3 ½ in.; rather thin, but soft, silky and glossy, and of the same
      length on the neck, back and ribs. But the ornamental hair is much longer-for instance,
      on the edges of the hips it is often 7 in. long, hanging down in silky, wavy tresses, and
      has heavy under hair. On the under side of the ribs and on the belly it is thin and is
      without under hair, and does not seem so long, only toward the rear it reaches 4 ½ in.
      The males have large side whiskers up to 7 in. in length; the females lack these.
      On the tail the hair is 5 to 7 in. long and hangs down straight; the upper side of the
      tail is covered with short, smooth hair; around the root this is wavy.
      On the hind edges of the forelegs the hair is of the ordinary length of the hair of the
       body, the fore edges as also the head have a very short mouse-like coat of hair, but
       it is also silky and glossy. In general the hair on the Psovoi borzois is straight, wavy
      or curly, according to which type of its original progenitors the dog is nearer to, and
      any of these is allowed as long as the hair is not course and woolly, which would
      indicate a crossing with common or sheep dogs."

    This is a very nice early description of what the Borzoi coat was and should be. The hair was 5 to 7 inches long on the tail and only 3 ½  inches on the body. Maybe we should specify maximum coat length in the standard.

           Machevarianov 1876.

           "The Psovaya Borzoi has a thick wavy coat 4 to 5 cm
           (1.6 to 2 inches) long, sometimes more, all over the body,
            with long feathering as thin as ostrich feathers at the temples,
            the rear sides of the front legs and the thighs as well as at the
            lower side of the tail where it can reach over ¼ archin (7 inches)."

   Machevarianov is calling for a shorter coat on the body than Giebin; only 1.6 to 2  inches. The feathering and the pattern are the same as described by Giebin and are distinctive features of the Borzoi.

       Ermolov 1888.

       "...the dog should be dressed in a wavy, silky feathering. It is better if the cover
        is not especially warm, but with  feathering of good quality."

    Here Ermolov states that the coat should not be too warm, again because the running dog must be able to dissipate heat. An excessively long or heavy or unseasonable coat would be too warm, a serious disability for a runner who may overheat and suffer heat stroke if unable to dissipate heat.

      Sabaneev 1892.

      "Coat soft, silky and glossy; wavy in places or in large curls all over.
       The decorative hair, i.e. on the neck, hips and tail, is considerably longer
       than on the back and ribs; on the head, from the ears forward, and the
       fore edges of the legs, the hair must be very short, like to a mouse, smooth and glossy."

     Here no length is specified, but the pattern is described. This pattern is very distinctive to the Borzoi, and  when coats become too long or excessive it is lost.

      English Standard 1892.

      "Coat - Long, silky (not woolly), either flat, wavy, or rather curly. On the head,
      ears and front legs it should be short and smooth. On the neck the frill should be
      profuse and rather curly. On the chest and rest of body, the tail and hindquarters,
      it should be long. The forelegs should be well feathered."

      American Standard 1905.

      "Coat - Long, silky (Not Woolly), either flat, wavy or rather curly.
      On the head, ears  and front of legs it should be short and smooth;
      on neck the frill should be profuse and rather curly.  Feather on hind
      quarters and tail, long and profuse, less so on the chest and back of fore  legs."

      The Modern American Standard.

      "COAT - Long, silky (not woolly), either flat, wavy or rather curly. On the head,
       ears and front of legs it should be short and smooth; on the neck the frill should be
       profuse and rather curly. Feather on hindquarters and tail, long and profuse, less so on
       chest and back of forelegs."

      The FCI standard.

     "Coat: Hair: Silky, soft and supple, wavy or forming short curls. On the head, the
      ears and the limbs, the hair is satiny (silky but heavier), short, close lying. On the
      body, the hair is quite long, wavy; on the regions of the shoulder blades and the
      croup, the hair forms finer curls; on the ribs and thighs, the hair is shorter; the hair
      which forms the fringes, the "breeches" and the feathering of the tail is longer."

   All of these describe the coat pattern but do not specify lengths. They do state that the coat should be long. This is an arbitrary and relative description, and can lead to exaggeration as coats continue to become longer and longer. Further comment on the American standard will follow.

      Galina Wiktorowna Zotova  1997.

        "The Borzoi has a very specific characteristic partition of coat: long, curly hair-dorsal,
          long, thick  hair on breast and back. The flanks in contrary have very short hair."

Here again is a description of the coat pattern from a world-recognized Russian borzoi authority. When speaking about the differences between Russian and western Borzoi, Ms. Zotova said,

       "Borzoi from Western countries are much too large in height and the hair is thick.
        The western people look at Borzoi more or less as a decorative dog. So it seems
        that they judge the dog more  in  respect to exotic appeal than in behalf of the
        correct anatomy, physically ability and power.... Obviously, another difference
        to our dogs, is the  long hair. That's western style and standard. So, some western
        breeders say the Russian Borzoi has little coat, although it is the original anatomy."

     That is a succinct summation: a profuse coat can hide an incorrect anatomy and a lack of muscular development and power. It is also not "the original anatomy", that is, the breed's original coat.
      Another change from the original hunting borzoi coat  involves shedding.  Anna Shubkina, a Russian Borzoi hunter, breeder and judge, wrote in the Russian PADS (the People And Dogs Society) newsletter, in 2004,

      "Hunting on Russian unlimited open spaces did not allow the Borzoi to have too
       heavy coat and the dogs shed strictly according to change of seasons. Our Borzois,
       as a rule, shed by the summer, when they have a short light coat and develop a thicker
       coat by winter reaching maximum by late January-February.  Showing dogs in Europe
       requires a different kind of coat.  Since late 60th of the past Century, dogs with
       luxurious heavy coat were consistently winning and now, majority of the Borzois
       in the West retain a heavy coat during most of the year.  Concentrated foods with
       necessary vitamins and other supplements stimulating growth of hairs and changing
       the shedding schedule also helped this."

      Our interpretation is that alteration of something so physiologically basic as shedding cycles bears close scrutiny. In the desire to show a heavily coated dog year round, show selection is toward a dog that does not undergo a yearly shed. It requires a lot of protein and metabolic activity to grow a new coat, with as much as 25% of the protein intake being used for that purpose at the time of coat replacement. Selection against dogs who are capable of shedding out old worn coat and replacing it with new healthy coat is, inadvertently, selection toward a dog who is unable to bear the metabolic cost of coat production and therefore retains the old, worn coat rather than replacing it. In a genetic process called saltation, when one trait is altered, often other, unanticipated alterations ride along as well. These are unexpected by-products caused by the same genetic changes that were intentionally selected for when the single selected trait was altered. Saltations are why, for example, certain inherited diseases are evidenced by several apparently unrelated physical traits. Coat colors have been shown to be related to behavioral and reproductive changes in Dimitri Belyaev's studies of foxes. Temple Grandin has found evidence of hair whorls in cattle and humans being related to neurologic and behavioral traits. When we go about altering fundamental physiologic traits, we should be very humble and careful, because we may end up with associated linked changes we had no idea were genetically connected.  And even on the simple face of it, causing dogs to carry a full heavy coat in warm climates throughout the year is a misery and a disservice to them.

      The show Borzoi has, inarguably, gained and changed coat over the years.  The huge emphasis on hair for many breeds at dog shows is apparent in the great deal of money and time spent on hair care products and gadgets, for use  inside and out. This goes beyond presenting dogs with shiny clean coats; having a dog to show becomes equivalent to getting a degree as a hair stylist. Borzoi coats with waves or curls are often blow-dried straight for shows. Silicon spray is used to replace the natural dirt-shedding silky texture. Supplements are sometimes used not out of concern for supplying the dog with the healthiest possible diet, but out of interest in growing the maximum possible coat. Less healthful supplements have also been tried, such as low doses of arsenic, or thyroxin given to non-hypothyroid dogs, in efforts to grow more coat. Perhaps we should consider that the reason some of our dogs "lack coat" is because massive coat was not what the breed originally had, nor is it the correct and desirable coat for them to have now. Just imagine if this much emphasis was placed instead on well-developed musculature and cardiovascular ability!
      Fortunately for us, so far there are still beautiful well-fitting silky coats to be found; they are not yet entirely lost, though they are losing ground. The old curly and wavy coats have been significantly reduced  throughout the breed in the US, and when the curls disappear, the waves will follow. The US standard still specifies that the neck frill be "rather curly": it reads, "on the neck the frill should be profuse and rather curly. Feather on hindquarters and tail, long and profuse, less so on chest and back of forelegs". Keeping less feathering on the chest and back of forelegs would be a great help to the dog in the field, as well as maintaining a balanced, long-legged, sighthoundlike appearance, and is in the standard for a reason; though it's a reason we've long forgot, based in the field rather than in the ring. Our first reference, Giebin in 1891 makes a point of this: "On the underside of the ribs and on the belly it is thin and is without underhair, and does not seem so long, only toward the rear it reaches 4.5  inches." The words "long" and "profuse" are used in the US standard, but they need to be interpreted within the context in which they were written.
      Notice that the US standard from 1905 and the current one read exactly the same. Bistri of Perchino, whose photograph taken in 1904 is below, was described as having a "magnificent" coat at that time. As you can see, he would be described as lacking coat, today. This is a great illustration of the fact that though the standard has not changed one word on coat in almost 100 years, the dogs themselves have changed a great deal. One point to take away from this is that written standards do not preserve breeds in their original state; they only describe what was within the context of their time, to those familiar with the meaning of the terms when they were written. Following from this is that standards need to be interpreted within the context in which they were written as much as remains possible today.
      Nowhere in the US standard is the coat described as "flowing"; yet that description is commonly used as if it were an attribute rather than a pejorative. "Flowing" goes in a category along with other descriptors used by exhibitors as high praise but actually found nowhere in the standard, such as "neck like a giraffe".  A giraffe-necked creature covered in a waterfall of  hair cascading to it's ankles springs to mind. These kinds of exaggerations and alterations, not described in the standard, are not attributes.
      A Russian breeder has explained to us that the longest coat should be located on the tail, the back of the hindquarters, and the collar, or neck. Under the chest is not one of the areas where the longest  hair is desired. If the borzoi has equally long hair on the rest of the body, such as is appreciated in the west, it may be considered a deviation from the standard and be penalized. It is more important that the form of the coat be correct, with the fineness of hair on the head and legs, than that there be a lot of coat. This fineness of hair on the face and legs contributes to the dry appearance of the borzoi.
      The "very short, like a mouse, smooth and glossy" facial coat, "on the head, from the ears forward" specified by Sabaneev in 1892 and others before him, is particularly aristocratic in appearance, like silk, with the clearly apparent facial veins coursing beneath it. When coats become too heavy, the face loses this fineness; the veining is no longer easily visible, and the face toward the back of the skull tends to grow longer coarser hair requiring trimming to comply with the written descriptions of the coat. Very heavy coats also change the appearance of the legs, obscuring the dry bladed shape and causing them to look thick and heavy. Even the appearance of the feet is affected; the detailing seen in a dry foot is no longer visible when the coat pattern is disrupted and the hair on the legs is no longer fine, but thick and coarse. The outline of the dog is degraded in other ways by excess coat: the coat tends to become ill-fitting, with lots of hair lumping over the hips as seen in the herding breeds; and huge coat causes a heavy, inelegant appearance, skewing the visual balance of  the center of gravity of the dog and making it appear lower in carriage than it might actually be.
      There are ample illustrations of the original borzoi coat and it's variations,  both in old photographs and in old artistic representations, often depicting the curly neck frill, like a muff around the neck, thick but not particularly long, and very moderate coat on the rest of the body, sometimes even rather short, sometimes curly or wavy, with only slightly longer hair on the tail and back of the hindquarters.  Shape-distorting masses of hair under the chest or on the back of the forelegs are conspicuously absent, so the shapeliness of the hound can easily be seen.

      Excessive coat on the Borzoi is incorrect for the breed and should be penalized in the show ring rather than encouraged; it is naturally penalized in the field. Following is a quote from The Onlooker dated 1891. "The proper and only 'true type' of any breed is that which most exactly subserves the purposes for which the breed is designed. Any malformation which is likely to unfit the dog for its uses is fatal to its being true to type."  This is the best explanation of breed type we have yet seen; and though breed type and it's common confusion with style are an entire topic in themselves, this quote does put a fine point on the concept  that excessive coat is antithetical to breed type. In addition to historic loss and functional loss, excessive coat also causes esthetic loss by obscuring the beauty of the body, whose lines, curves, and proportions are the essential esthetic core of the breed. As Wallace Stevens says in the quote used to open this article, "Style is not applied. It is something that permeates. It is of the nature of that in which it is found....It is not a dress."
      The breeds we have inherited developed by a dynamic evolution, but currently we seek to maintain them through a static selection process. The real style is that of the body and the mind inside it. It is based on behavior and physical and mental ability over time, evolving in a multi-dimensional world. Voila; out of this process, the form appears. Today, we have a very different selection method; a static method, looking only with the eyes, at a brief, two-dimensional show ring appearance,  according to which we then live and believe and make animal lives. When attempts at style are made by use of this two-dimensional system, through exaggeration of single, superficial aspects such as coat, the result can only be a sham, a caricature, a vaudeville show, tacky and pathetic as pancake make-up. At it's worse, an overheating, sheeplike coat can even make the poor borzoi, sadly, ridiculous.

      They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so below are many photographs of borzoi from the past. All are photographs except for two illustrations, which are identified as such. Included are several photographic examples from the country of origin taken at around 1900. Unfortunately, no photo seems able to illustrate the special, silken quality of the borzoi coat; but we are able to see pattern and quantity, though unable to perceive the texture. The photos are ordered chronologically by year, starting with the oldest. Most of the dogs are named; some were bred into the Valley Farm lines, such as Marksman, Bistri and Argos. Included also are historic pictures of afghan hounds, for comparison to the modern US afghan hound coat, as food for thought regarding the direction the borzoi coat is to take.
      The unique and specialized can easily be lost,  replaced by the common and generic. Do we want to discard something as rare and beautiful as the borzoi coat, with it's derivation firmly anchored in functional breed history, and change it with quick arrogance for something as arbitrary and trivial as a dog show? The choice is ours.

             Udaloy 1876  (drawing)                                                  Argos   1892

                   Argos 1892                                                          Leekhoi circa 1892

           Modjeska 1894                                              Borzoi of Tsar Nicholas II, 1897

           Daniar 1899                                                                 Marksman 1901

                                                    Borzoi in Russia circa 1900.

                    Bistri of Perchina 1904                              Atamanka of Woronsova 1904
    Described by Joseph Thomas as having a                Woronsova was known for its
                   "magnificent" coat.                                                  profuse coats.

       .       ..
            Westminster show 1909                               Grenada of Perchina 1909

                        Circa 1909                                                   Circa 1909 (painting)

           Perchina dog circa 1910                             Perchina bitch circa 1910

                          1911                                                      Perchina  circa 1911

       Rasboi o' Valley Farm 1912                               Genest O' Russeau 1915

              Cyclone of Perchina 1916                                   Ch. Soja  1922

        1925  Mrs. Kent Williams,  TX                      Square Acres Kennel N.J. 1925

             Ivor o' Valley Farm 1926                                 1928   Kanza Kennels, KS

           Nappraxin o' Valley Farm and                                    Boi o' Valley Farm
            Louba of Vladimir circa 1930                    Best of Breed Westminster Show 1930

Pelleas of Perchino (an American kennel)                       Afghans 1924

            Afghan 1933                                                  Afghan 1933


Copyright Yvonne and Rey McGehee 2004.