J.B. Thomas Says American Borzoi Lead the World
by Micheline de Zutter
April 1, 1934, American Kennel Gazette
The “tempest in a teapot” which has raged in England ever since the Continental borzoi authority, H. J. M. Van der Berkhof, judged at Ranelagh is somewhat interesting and amusing to American breeders of the dog, which is recognized in this country as the Russian wolfhound. It is amusing, because when Mr. Van der Berkhof contends that the Continental type of borzoi is far better than the general type found in England and the British dispute his statements, both sides are dealing in half-truths.
The discussion as to the relative merits of Continental and English borzoi led me recently to visit probably the greatest living authority on the breed, Joseph B. Thomas, former owner of the far-famed Valley Farm Kennels, which for more than two decades, starting in 1889, bred, exhibited, and coursed the finest borzoi in the world.
Mr. Thomas was one of the founders of the Russian Wolfhound Club of America in 1903, and for many years one of its officers. He retired from an active part in the game about 20 years ago, but the splendid stock that he brought directly out of the Perchino Kennels of H.I.H. the late Grand Duke Nicholas is the foundation behind most of the outstanding dogs in America today.
What Mr. Van der Berkhof and some of the English borzoi authorities know by hearsay, Mr. Thomas knows by actual experience, and much of his knowledge is in contradiction to the supposed truths. It was in the Summer of 1903 that Mr. Thomas made his first trip to Russia, and the following year he again took the same long journey. Upon each occasion he left no stone unturned to dig out a true perspective on the breed as it had existed for centuries in that country, and as it was at the time of his visit.
The conclusions he reached led him in 1912 to write a book on the breed. It is called, simply, “Borzoi,” but it is regarded in America as the most authoritative work on the breed. No truer picture of the development of the borzoi or Russian wolfhound may be had than is found in the quotation from “Borzoi” which follows:
“Doubtless you will be interested in knowing how it came about that the ancient type of borzoi at one time nearly disappeared. It happened thus: shortly after the close of the Napoleonic wars, and the subsequent revival of sporting activity in Russia, there arose a great craze for trying experiments in crossing foreign greyhounds with the ancient type borzoi of that country. Various breeds were used; but principally English and Polish greyhounds (the latter a cousin of the English breed), and Crimean or Asiatic greyhounds with pendent ears. To such an extent was this crossing practiced that, in 1861, when the serfs were emancipated and conditions in rural Russia were turned topsy-turvy, there were few hounds left in the whole country the blood of which had not been contaminated by the foreign invasion.
“After the ‘freedom,’ large numbers of the Russian nobility, who were paid by the Government when their land was relinquished to the former serfs, left their estates and repaired to the cities and watering-places of Europe. In many cases, their kennels were either entirely given up, or utterly ruined by the extended absence of the lord of the manor.
“When the noble eventually returned to his estate in after years, he was oftentimes no longer in a position to re-integrate his kennels, so that the maintenance of hounds and hunting, which had originally been a universal custom throughout Russia, remained in isolated instances only. Private ownership in small holdings also militated against the sport in some localities. The economic conditions were not dissimilar to those in the Southern States of America at the close of the Civil War.
“Thus it will be seen that first, from the mixing of the breed, and then later from the decrease in the number of hounds, the ancient type became nearly extinct, so that when the first exportations of borzoi were made from Russia, so far as I can ascertain, none of the real ancient type hound ever left the country. It is even doubtful if they could have been readily found had the exporters known the difference. Very few of any kind ever went to Continental Europe. They were held at too high prices for one thing, were difficult to obtain at all, and were usually only sent out to individuals as presents.
“It is not precisely known who first introduced borzoi into England; but a writer of 1878 observes, concerning British dogs, that borzoi, or ‘barzois,’ as he spells it, ‘are scarce in this country, which is to be regretted, as they are strikingly handsome.’
“In the early days of the borzoi in Great Britain a few were exhibited at the Kennel Club shows, among the best of which were H.R.H. the Prince of Wale’s Moeldewitz – probably a misspelling of Moloditz – from the Imperial Kennels, at Gatchina, near St. Petersburg; Mr. Cummin MacDona’s Sandringham by Moeldewitz, out of Oudalscha; and Lady Emily Peel’s Czar, a white with fine markings like his dam, Sandringham. Czar was by the Duke of Hamilton’s Moscow, a prize-winner at the Crystal Palace in 1875.
“A writer in the Stock-Keeper of about 1890 remarks:
“‘The hounds which Lady Charles Innes-Kerr used to exhibit were very beautiful creatures and pleasantly colored, the rich-toned orange patches making a rich contrast to the pure body white. They were, we always understood, descended from specimens in the Imperial Russian Stud, which were originally presented to Lord Cowley. Lady Emily Peel used also to exhibit a very grand specimen of the breed.’
“From the public appearance of Krilutt, property of the Hon. Mrs. Wellesley, of Merton Abbey, Surrey, at the Alexandra Palace show in the Spring of 1889, dates the present popularity of the breed in England and America. Krilutt is described by Hugh Dalziel, the well-known writer on dogs, as the best of his day in England. This dog, imported by Col. Wellesley, was born April 27, 1886, and was bred by Mr. Korotneff. A report of the Moscow Dog Show for 1888 describes Krilutt as the winner of a silver medal, which means that he was a fair specimen, but not good enough to deserve the gold medal, only given to hounds of premier rank. He is said to have sold for 400 rubles. His measurements, taken from the Stock-Keeper, with comments, were as follows:
Length of head - 11 1/2
From occiput to between shoulders - 11 1/2
From between shoulders to between hips - 23
From between hips to set-on of tail - 6 1/4
Length of tail (not reckoning hair) - 21
Total length - 73 1/4
Height at shoulder (taken fairly) - 30 1/4
Girth of chest - 33
Girth of narrowness part of tuck up - 22
Girth just above the stifle-bend - 13
Girth round the stifle - 11 1/2
Girth, hock joint - 6 1/2
Girth below hock joint - 4 1/2
Girth, elbow joint - 8 1/4
Girth above elbow joint - 8 3/4
Girth, midway between elbow and pastern - 6 1/2
Girth of neck - 17
Girth of head, round occiput - 16 1/2
Girth of head between occiput and eyes - 16 1/4
Girth of head round the muzzle, between eyes and nose - 9
“‘We give these details fully, because, this dog being now proved to be the handsomest of its kind in England, we think they must be not only interesting, but likewise of instructive value as a means of future comparison, Krilutt has the best feet we have seen on any of these hounds; they are more hare- than cat-footed. He is a little short in tail, and his head could be somewhat leaner. The name Krilutt is the Russian “winged” – in the sense that Mercury has wings’ hence it means “fast in the wind.”
“After the advent of Krilutt and the exhibition of a few specimens in the mixed classes for foreign dogs, the popularity of this breed soon spread so that as many as 40 individuals were exhibited, the principal breeders and exhibitors being the Duchess of Newcastle, Col. the Hon. Charles Wellesley, Mrs. Alfred Morrison, Mr. W.H. Huntington, Mr. Kenneth Muir, and, Mr. Freeman Lloyd. The Duchess of Newcastle became the largest imported, going as far as St. Petersburg on one occasion herself, and sending agents.
“In 1891, the agent of her Grace, Mr. Musgrave, sent out, I believe, from St. Petersburg a shipment of no less than nine at one time. Of all the shipments made, there appears to have been not one really good ‘ancient type’ hound, and in few cases did the importers have the slightest idea of what the pedigrees of their hounds meant – that is, they had no knowledge of the type of the progenitors of their purchases. However, it is from an old picture of Mr. Musgrave’s that I first obtained an idea that the ‘ancient type’ ever had existed. Mr. Musgrave had found this picture in Russia, although I do not suppose that he, or any other foreign fancier, ever saw a hound to approach the dog depicted until I visited the grand kennels at Perchina, many years afterward.
“Several of the early imported hounds came from the Imperial Kennels at Gatchina, near St. Petersburg, which were full of greyhound blood and showed it in short tails, distinct stops to the skull, and short coats in some instances, while others came from sources no less free from the greyhound cross. No less an authority than Mr. Artem Balderoff, who knows almost by heart the breeding of every dog in Russia, is the source of information which verifies thoroughly the distinction between ancient type (Gustopsovoy Borzoi) and the modern type (Christopsovoy Borzoi).
“I think I have shown you that when, 15 to 30 years ago (written in 1912), Borzoi were being sent out from Russia, although there were then very few specimens of the ancient type in existence, there was a distinct idea in the mind of the Russian as to what that type had been; for not only was this idea depicted by drawings, but written standards were made which called, in most exact terms, for the salient characteristics of the ancient type. For example, L.P. Sabaneyef, of Moscow, writing in 1892, although recognizing that the breed had changed somewhat, calls for a standard requiring length of coat, length of tail, and shape of head, such as were not to be found in the animals that had left Russia. Although some of the exportations were fairly good specimens individually, on account of their mixed blood it was quite impossible to find them breeding true. In England and America the lack of dogs approaching this ideal standard had caused much controversy as to what type to breed.
“After having bred such Borzoi as I could obtain in America for a number of years, and having read everything I could find on the subject, I came to the conclusion that, in America, there were no hounds that fulfilled the requirements of the Russian standard, nor even the requirements of the English standard, which, as a matter of fact, was practically a copy of the Russian.
“I was, moreover, decidedly nonplussed by the repeated failure of the breed to reproduce itself with any kind of regularity. Of course, at this time I was unaware of the crossings which had been perpetrated.
“Finally, I became so much perplexed in regard to this matter that, in July, 1903, I went to England to inspect the several kennels there, of which I had heard so much. After weeks spent in visiting every prominent breeder in England, I was convinced that England was little, if any, better off than the United States.
“The, then, principal kennel was most notable for the size and coarseness of its dogs, which characteristic, together with the fact that many of them were very unsound, made them anything but coursing types. Coarse heads, with prominent stops to the skull, were here very much in evidence. Hardly any two dogs looked alike. In the minor kennels there were a great many weeds. There was no definite type to be seen, and, as a whole, the English representation lacked character. There was no definite cachet to the breed. There were positively no hounds that had real quality and substance combined.
“Early August saw me in St. Petersburg, and here I nearly gave up the search for the ideal, of which I had seen pictures, as I have told you. On visiting the Imperial Kennels at Gatchina near the capital, I saw only two out of 80 grown dogs that I should have liked to possess; but what was more discouraging than this was the fact that no distinct type was visible.
“Some were well-coated, others the contrary; some had fairly good heads, while others were absolutely poor types – not borzoi, but greyhound.
“The reason for the lack of type in England and America here became immediately patent, as more specimens had gone to those countries from the Imperial Kennels than from any other. Fortunately, in spite of further disappointments, I did not relinquish my quest until I had visited the kennels of Grand Duke Nicolai Nicolaiovitch, and that of Mr. and Mrs. Artem Balderoff.
“My visits to these kennels came almost by accident, for Russia is a country of great distances; and accurate information on any subject, especially sporting subjects, is most difficult to obtain. The Russian sportsman is even more apt to underestimate or overestimate than is his Americanconfrere, and there are fewer sources of information.
“From St. Petersburg I had gone to Moscow, and visited kennels there with no success in finding what I was looking for, but what I did find was more pictures, and this encouraged me to continue my search. With great difficulty I obtained the address of the editor of a little sporting paper, and gleaned from him, after using parts of several languages, that Mr. Artem Balderoff had an excellent kennel, and he thought, moreoever, that H.I.H. the Grand Duke Nicholas also had ‘some hounds.’
“Little did I realize, at that time, what my fortune was to be, for had I not seen either of these kennels, I should have been little wiser for my trip. I sent off a telegraphic request to be allowed to visit them, and, fortunately, the wires brought favorable replies; in the one case from Mr. Balderoff, himself, in the other, from M. Dimtry Walzoff, who is ‘chef du comptoir‘ to the Grand Duke.
“My trip from Moscow brought me early, on the following morning, to Tula, a town some hundreds ofversts from the ancient capital. After some difficulty, I obtained a troika. With a crack of the driver’s knout and the tinkle of a string of bells hung at the horses’ throats, as was formerly done in all posting conveyances all over Europe, the heavy carraige, similar to our victoria, rolled over the cobblestones of the town street and out along the dusty trail towards the estate of the Seigneur.
“For hours, we passed through a closely cultivated grain country, where the peasants were gathering the last vestiges of the crops, by methods, in many instances, not far removed from those employed in Egypt in the days of bondage; past flocks and herds, and droves of hobbled horses attended by barefooted boys and girls; through forest and open plain until the eye was delighted bu the sight of the white walls of Monseigneur’s mansion, nestled in the midst of an irregular hamlet of peasants’ izbas.
“I was met by M. Walzoff, himself, that excellent sportsman and breeder, and by Capt. Golovin, the resident manager of the kennels, and was most hospitably entertained. The hunting-lodge, built many years ago by an Italian architect, as were many of the Russian country estates, looks over a broad expanse of prairie dotted with coverts. The magnificent kennels lie on the two slopes of a valley to the left. Nearly every room in the lodge is hung with hunting trophies killed by the Grand Duke, and rigorously ‘protected’ by his clown, a dwarf, about three feet six inches tall, bearing on his thumb the Seigneur’s signet ring, a curious relic of mediaeval custom.
“I was not at all prepared for what I saw in these wonderful kennels. The size and evenness in type of the hounds were wonderful for any breed. Originally, they were all white and grey; but have now bred white and tan; tan and black; all grey; and even black; and pure white. The black ones are not kept.
“At first, it was nearly impossible for me to comprehend how these dogs could be so good, displaying everything that the ideal pictures had called for. Eventually I ascertained that, about 29 years ago, the Grand Duke Nicholas had started the kennel, and later had placed it in charge of M. Walzoff, who had had his own hunt at one time. With every resource at his command, M. Walzoff got together at first comparatively few specimens of real ancient type hounds, finding them in remote corners of Russia. Having a complete knowledge of their blood lines, he was able, by intelligent action, by never selling any, and by the severest process of selection, to produce the wonderful collection.”
Later, Mr. Thomas visited the Woronzova Kennels of Mr. Balderoff, and before he returned to America he had arranged for the importation of quite a number of dogs from each place. The best of them came from Perchina, and upon them is founded the extremely good borzoi or Russia wolfhounds found in the United States, today. The following year, Mr. Thomas returned to Russia and hunted with the Grand Duke’s wonderful hunt on the enormous Perchina estate, where the hare, the fox, and the wolf are preserved with the greatest care.
As far as the borzoi of the Continent are concerned, Mr. Thomas issued a challenge in 1906 to place a group of eight of his Valley Farm products in competition with eight borzoi from Western Europe under a trio of judges, for a stake of 5,000 francs. This challenge was specifically addressed to Mr. G. Van Muylem of Belgium, but it was never taken up.
America’s dogs of today are descended of the ones that would have been involved in that contest. Mr. Van Muylem, by not accepting the challenge – whose terms were eminently fair, even giving a little advantage to the Belgian – admitted the superiority of the American dogs of Russian lineage. So, by a simple process of reasoning, the borzoi of the Continent, today, cannot be any better than their progenitors.
To go one step further, the glory of the borzoi died with the revolution back in 1917, so that it is extremely doubtful if any of the true, ancient type borzoi have come out of Russia in 17 to 20 years. Only in America does one find the true descendants of the remarkable Perchina and Woronzova kennels that bred the Russian wolfhound in its noble and traditional manner.