Black Russian Terrier: Dog Breed Profile

Characteristics, History, Care Tips, and Helpful Information for Pet Owners

Adult black Russian terrier outside

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The first thing you should know about the Black Russian terrier is that this big, bold breed is actually not a terrier at all. In reality, the BRT (as the breed is commonly referred to) is classified as a working dog.

This dog breed has both brains and brawn. They are very intelligent and very large—many tip the scales at more than 100 pounds. When standing on their hind legs, they can reach a height of 5 feet or more. It’s no surprise that these dogs have a history of use within both police and military organizations.

However, the Black Russian terrier also makes a loyal and lovable companion. The somewhat small community of breeders and enthusiasts are passionate about their BRTs and have plenty to say about the possibilities of living and working with such a large, intelligent dog. Keep in mind, though, that the size and smarts of these working dogs may overpower a novice dog owner. Firm, consistent leadership and an understanding of the breed’s nature and needs are essential for a happy, healthy home. 

Breed Overview

Group: Working

Height: 27 to 30 inches (males); 26 to 29 inches (females)

Weight: 100 to 150 pounds (males); 80 to 120 pounds (females)

Coat: Double coat of medium length

Coat Color: Black

Life Expectancy: 10 to 12 years

Characteristics of the Black Russian Terrier

Affection Level High
Friendliness Medium
Kid-Friendly Medium
Pet-Friendly Low
Exercise Needs Medium
Playfulness Medium
Energy Level Medium
Trainability High
Intelligence High
Tendency to Bark Medium
Amount of Shedding Medium

History of the Black Russian Terrier

Many dog breeds are developed to help fill a specific need—such as hunting, herding, companionship, and more. This is no different for the BRT, except that the breed was born in the Soviet Army’s Red Star kennel.

Immediately prior to and during the Cold War era, Soviet scientists were tasked with developing the ‘ideal’ working dog that could patrol borders, chase down intruders, and guard work camps, prisons, and more. Endurance was a key consideration, along with the ability to stay warm in the frigid Russian winters. To accomplish their objective, 17 different breeds are thought to have been utilized in developing the BRT. The Airedale terrier, Rottweiler, Giant Schnauzer, Newfoundland, Great Dane, and more contributed to the genetic pool that would eventually produce the all-black BRT.

As the political climate evolved and military needs changed, many of the institutions these dogs had been enlisted to guard—such as work camps—were closed. As a result, the Black Russian terrier was looking for a new occupation. The Red Army stated selling the puppies to civilians and a new breed entered the public sphere in 1957. Shortly afterward, the Soviet Army published the first breed standard for the Black Russian terrier in 1958. However, it would not be until 1981 that the Soviet Ministry of Agriculture would officially declare the BRT as a breed.

Private breeders placed a little more emphasis on the form and function of the breed. While the Soviet Army bred for a utilitarian purpose, breeders began aiming to enhance the appearance of the breed.

About the time that the Cold War ended, the first Black Russian terriers were imported to the United States. From the early 1990’s until the breed gained AKC-recognition in 2004, the breed was relatively unknown in the United States. Even today, this bold breed remains very rare—living up to its nickname “the black pearl of Russia.”

A Black Russian Terrier competes in the Working Group at the 140th Annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden on February 16, 2016 in New York City
Matthew Eisman / WireImage / Getty 

Black Russian Terrier Care

There is a lot to know about proper training and care of a Black Russian terrier, or Blackie as they're affectionately called. The size, strength, and smarts of this breed mean that you can’t underestimate them or leave them to their devices.

Interestingly, despite their formidable size and strength, these dogs are known for their emotional stability and aren’t usually subject to impulsive or neurotic behavior—provided they have the proper training, exercise, and sufficient mental engagement. This makes sense, considering the fact that the military was breeding for a dog that was not just powerful and imposing but also reliable and easily controlled by its handler.

The BRT is generally not considered a good choice for novice dog owners, since they exhibit a strong sense of dominance. These dogs will take advantage of anyone they feel they can impose on—and it’s not hard to do, given their immense size. However, don’t confuse this innate behavior with a desire for rank. The BRT is more interested in getting his way than moving up in the pack position. Of course, without firm and fair leadership, this dog will naturally assume the position of pack leader.

Firm and consistent training is a key to success in training this dog breed. If you let them get away with a bad habit once or twice, it will be hard to break them of it in the future because of their stubborn streak.

The goal in training a Black Russian terrier should be to establish clear lines of communication so that the dog understands what you are expecting of him. Given their size and strength, it’s important to gain this breed’s willing cooperation. While some companion dog breeds do relatively well with minimal training, the BRT needs regular, consistent, and conscious training.

The breed is relatively slow to mature—it can take up to three years. So you can expect to see your dog’s personality and traits continue to evolve through this process. It’s also important to note that some breed experts suggest that the dog’s protective instincts won’t fully manifest themselves until 12 to 18 months of age. However, the important period of training and socialization to properly manage this instinct is between 2 and 10 months. A proper foundation is a critical component of training the BRT to be a safe, happy, and well-adjusted dog.

Aloof rather than aggressive might be the best way to describe the Black Russian terrier’s attitude towards strangers. Theses dogs should be taught how to recognize and greet someone you invite into the home so that they don’t interpret your dinner guests as intruders. They generally appreciate and enjoy affection from people, but they’ll choose to approach rather than have attention thrust upon them.

Unlike dogs bred for hunting, the guarding nature of the BRT means that its more likely to wait for a threat to approach rather than to pursue a threat. They aren’t known for being particularly vocal, but they won’t hesitate to sound the alarm when they see a potential intruder—including humans, animals, cars, and more.

Generally, this breed will do well with dogs that are part of their pack, but there is the potential for aggressiveness with unfamiliar dogs—especially if they’re provoked. However, BRTs are generally not known for initiating confrontation. The Black Russian terrier is much more keen on receiving attention from people, and is often noted as being mostly indifferent to other dogs unless threatened or provoked.

It might catch you by surprise to learn that such a big dog can prove so adaptable, but it’s been noted that the BRT does well even in apartments—as long as you provide daily exercise and sufficient mental engagement.

In fact, the BRT might not need as much exercise as you think—a healthy daily walk of at least a half hour is typically enough for these dogs. In addition, you’ll need to provide daily opportunities to keep the mind of these smart dogs engaged. Mental stimulation through training sessions, canine competition, puzzle games, and more will help create a balanced frame of mind.

Breed enthusiasts strongly caution against using a BRT as an outdoor guard dog that spends extended periods of time isolated from the house and family. Doing so can easily lead to these dogs guarding their space from you. Instead, these dogs need to feel connected to their owner and home.

The coat of a Blackie is typically described as tousled but, depending on the texture and length, it might also appear wiry or curly. It’s described as dense but not fluffy. To keep all that fur in good order, you should brush your BRT daily.

Basic brushing is not so basic on this dog. Keep in mind his immense size and the fact that the coat is often between 2 and 5 inches in length. According to owners, brushing a BRT can take at least a half hour each day, but up to an hour depending on what your dog has been up to. If you fail to maintain the coat in this way, your dog will be subject to tangled fur and matting.

In addition, the BRT will need to be clipped to keep the length of the coat in check. Generally, this needs to be done about every 6 to 8 weeks. It can be pricey to have such a large dog clipped, so if you don’t want to pay up then plan to learn how to properly maintain your BRT’s coat at home. 

Black Russian terrier on lure course
Mordolff / Getty Images
Two black Russian terriers
Maksim Kamyshanskii / iStock / Getty Images
Black Russian terrier on grass
DevidDO / iStock / Getty Images

Common Health Problems

With a diverse background of breeds, the Black Russian terrier has the advantage of a deep gene pool but also the disadvantage of potentially inheriting a variety of genetic problems. In addition, the sheer size of this breed puts it at risk for certain joint and heart problems. The National Breed Club recommends that these dogs undergo evaluations for hips and elbows, a cardiac examination, eye evaluation by an ophthalmologist, and DNA test for Juvenile Laryngeal Paralysis and Polyneuropathy (JLPP).

In summary, here are the most common health problems seen in Black Russian terriers:

In addition, it’s recommended that you look for a breeder who has temperament testing results available for the dog or the parents of the litter and predecessors. Testing is typically done through the American Temperament Test Society.

Diet and Nutrition

The Black Russian terrier isn’t known for being a light eater. A dog of this size at maturity will likely consume between 4 to 6 cups of food each day, according to the Black Russian Terrier Club of America.

Don’t skimp on quality for quantity. Feeding a high-quality dog food or a homemade recipe (approved by your vet) could be pricey but pays off in the long run for the health and vitality of your dog.

You should also keep in mind the size and height of these dogs. Swiping a snack from the edge of the table or counter is simple for a dog that stands 5 feet or more on his hind legs. Take appropriate precautions to keep your dinner out of your dog’s reach to avoid losing your lunch. 

Pros
  • Loyal and affectionate with family

  • Calm demeanor

  • Can live in an apartment or house

Cons
  • Has a dominant personality

  • Needs plenty of mental engagement

  • Prone to some large-breed health problems

Where to Adopt or Buy a Black Russian Terrier

Buying a Black Russian terrier will likely involve some patience and persistence. These dogs are still rare here in the United States and relatively few litters are born each year. Prepare to be on a waiting list, along with undergoing some questions from a breeder regarding the suitability of your situation to care for such a bold breed.

At the same time, be sure to do your research on any breeder you are considering. Thoroughly vet the background of the dog and ask for the appropriate health and temperament evaluations. Look for a breeder that is chiefly concerned with breeding for temperament; you might even ask whether or not any dogs in the lineage have been used in service or therapy work or have received ‘Canine Good Citizen’ certifications.

If you have experience and interest in the breed, you also should consider looking into rescue organizations that have BRTs. In the hands of an inexperienced or ill-suited owner, the BRT can develop bad tendencies and habits that might end up in an owner surrender. Many times, the behavior is the result of poor training or other circumstances beyond the dog’s control. However, to appropriately correct the situation and rehabilitate the dog requires experience, patience, and lots of love.

Here are some organizations to point you in the right direction:

More Dog Breeds and Further Research

There’s a lot to learn about the Black Russian terrier. Just like a valuable pearl, there’s much to appreciate about these rare working dogs. Do your research to determine if this dog is the right choice for you, your experience, and your lifestyle. Read what other owners say about working with a BRT but also try to visit active kennels or connect with the breed at a dog show.

Here are some other working breeds to check out: