What To Know About Black Russian Terriers

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on May 27, 2022
8 min read

Black Russian terriers are large, loyal dogs in the working group. They’re a Russian breed that was created to patrol borders and protect their owners. 

These dogs make for intelligent, impressive pets. But they’re certainly not for everyone. You need plenty of space to raise a black Russian terrier and it helps if you’re familiar with massive breeds.  

Body size. The average black Russian terrier size is slightly larger for males than females. Males have an average height of 27 to 30 inches at the shoulder. Females are slightly shorter, averaging from 26 to 29 inches tall. 

The typical black Russian terrier weight can be greater than many full-grown humans. Depending on their height, healthy males and females can weigh anywhere from 80 to 130 pounds. Some get even larger. Make sure to talk to your veterinarian if you’re concerned that your dog is too far under or overweight

This massive size can be problematic for some owners. The dogs don’t travel easily and can’t be left alone for long. You always need to keep them in mind when making travel plans. They need plenty of space to live and shouldn’t be squished into a small apartment. 

Body shape. Black Russian terriers are a careful balance of strength and agility. They have deep, oval-shaped chests that extend to at least their elbows. 

They have muscular legs and compact, round feet. 

Another black Russian terrier trait is their head which is proportional to their bodies. This means that they’re quite large. The skull’s size should be at least 40% of the dog’s height at their shoulders. The head ends in a broad muzzle with a slight taper. 

The dog’s ears are medium-sized triangles that are set high on the skull. They’re rather long and stretch down to about mid-cheek. 

Their tails are thick and set moderately high on their rumps. Some owners choose to dock them for aesthetic reasons, but this isn’t required by the breed standard and is not always recommended by veterinarians. It doesn’t benefit your dog in any way. 

Lifespan. The black Russian terrier lifespan is good for their large size. They live an average of 10 to 12 years. This means that you should plan for at least a decade with your pet if you adopt them when they’re young. 

Coat. Black Russian terriers have a double coat that can vary greatly in its natural length. Some dogs have coats that are only one and half inches long while others can be as long as six inches. 

The undercoat is dense and soft. The outer coat is a thick, rough layer. 

The coat gets longer on the legs and the top of the head, where it can fall over the eyes without grooming. It also forms a distinct mustache and beard on the muzzle. 

The American Kennel Club (AKC) recognizes five different colors for their coats:

  • Black
  • Black and tan
  • Sable
  • Blue
  • Salt and pepper

They can also come with a saddle pattern marking over their backs. 

Eyes. These dogs have medium-sized oval eyes. Eyes are dark in color and set far apart. 

Personality. The black Russian terrier personality is fearless, determined, and calm. They exude self-assurance. Their temperaments shouldn’t be overly shy or excitable. 

They’re very loyal to their owners and moderately affectionate. The AKC rates them a three out of five in terms of their affection for their families. 

They’re solid working dogs who are at their best when they have something to guard and protect. They won’t back down from a threat. But they’re intelligent and can be trained. So, with enough effort, these large dogs are yours to command. 

Grooming. Black Russian terriers have intense grooming needs. You need to thoroughly brush their coats at least once a week but twice is better. Remove any mats and tangles when they form or they’ll only get worse. 

You need to trim their coats too, particularly around their mustaches and beards. You’ll need to clip their full coats every few months to keep them at a controlled, desired length. You can do this yourself or find a groomer that’s familiar with large, thick-coated breeds.

Trim their nails on a regular basis and brush their teeth daily to complete their grooming routine.  

Feeding.  Make sure that your pet has access to clean water at all times. 

Your Black Russian terrier should be fed with high-quality dog food. Try to find a brand that your pet enjoys and that’s specifically formulated for large breeds. Make sure that the nutritional requirements are specific to their stage of life, including puppy and senior-type foods. 

Always consult your veterinarian before choosing to make an at-home blend for your dog. Making your own food is a complicated process. You need to make sure that you’re meeting all of your dog’s nutritional needs or they’ll become unhealthy. 

Also, make sure that you know what human foods are safe for your dog to eat before feeding them anything from your kitchen.

Exercise and mental stimulation. Black Russian terriers have a lot of energy. They need at least 30 to 40 minutes of sound exercise every single day. They can become anxious and destructive without enough exercise. They can become aggressive if you don’t spend enough time with them. 

The best way to manage both of these issues is to play with them or include them in your outdoor activities. They love exercising with their human companions, including: 

  • Fast walks
  • Long runs
  • Bike rides
  • Swims
  • Hikes

You can also try out canine sports like agility and rally. These engaging activities provide them with both the mental and physical stimulation that they need. 

Veterinary visits, medications, and immunizations. Your veterinarian is the best person to determine all of the vaccinations that your pet needs. In general, all dogs should get a core set. 

This includes vaccinations for:

Vaccinations can begin as early as six weeks of age. There are other non-core vaccinations that you should discuss with your veterinarian. Many of these are specific to particular regions and lifestyles. 

Dosages for flea and tick medications are based on your dog's weight. Use them whenever your dog needs them. Oral and skin-based applications are available from your veterinarian and other distributors.

Many of these medications can be effective against a variety of pests and parasites, so talk to your veterinarian to figure out the best one for you. These days, heartworm medication is also recommended year-round in all parts of the U.S.

Black Russian terriers are a relatively healthy breed. But there are a number of problems that you should watch out for in your pet. 

Common Black Russian terrier health issues include: 

  • Gastric torsion or bloatThis is when there’s twisting in your dog’s gastrointestinal tract, specifically in the stomach. Your dog’s stomach fills with gas, food, or liquid and then twists, creating a sudden and life-threatening situation. Signs include an enlarged abdomen, retching, and drooling. It’s typically treated with emergency surgery.
  • Orthopedic issues. Examples include hip and elbow dysplasia. Hip dysplasia is where the ball and socket of your dog's hip joint doesn’t develop properly while it grows. Instead of sliding smoothly, the bones grind against each other, wearing down and eventually making it difficult for your dog to move. Your veterinarian can evaluate your dog's joints and see how likely they are to cause problems throughout your dog's life. Elbow dysplasia is a comparable condition at the elbow joint. 
  • Bladder and kidney stonesThese are painful deposits that form in your dog’s organs. Look for signs like blood in their urine or difficulty urinating. Get your dog to the veterinarian as soon as possible if you notice these signs. With treatment, your pet will recover. 
  • Thyroid problems. A common problem is hypothyroidism where your dog’s body can’t make enough thyroid hormone. Signs can include dry skin, hair loss, weight gain despite decreased appetite, and behavioral problems. Your veterinarian should screen for this condition on an annual basis. Treatment is usually in the form of a pill to replace the hormones.
  • Heart diseaseHeart murmurs can be an early sign of heart disease in your pet. With early detection and the proper medications, your dog can live for years with heart disease. You should have your veterinarian check them regularly to catch the condition early on.
  • Eye problems. These include conditions that lead to blindness like cataracts and progressive retinal atrophy (PRA). With PRA, you may start to notice your dog struggling to see, particularly at dusk and dawn. At present, there isn’t a treatment for this condition. Your vet should perform annual eye exams to look for any signs of deterioration. 
  • Patellar luxation. This is a common cause of lameness in dogs that’s due to problems with your pet’s knee joint. They could be born with it or develop the problem from an injury. The treatment will depend on the severity of your dog’s condition but could include surgery.

You absolutely need to keep their immense size and strength in mind before choosing to adopt a black Russian terrier. 

They can become very aggressive without proper training. Training and socialization should start when the dog is as young as possible. The socialization needs to be continued throughout their lifetimes and done with a sensitive mindset. 

They don’t respond well to aggression but, on the other hand, they won’t hesitate to dominate someone who appears weak. Stick to reward-based training and go into it with a confident mentality. 

They’re only moderately good with young children and other dogs. Strangers need to approach them with caution because they’re highly defensive. 

In terms of physical characteristics, they shed, drool, and bark a moderate amount of the time. 

The black Russian terrier history starts at the former Soviet Union’s Red Star Kennel. This kennel was created in the 1930s with the intention of breeding a super dog for the Soviet army. 

The country’s breeding stock had been depleted during World War I and the Great Depression. Importing strong lines became impossible as World War II approached. The program didn’t get far until after World War II, when the Soviet Union was able to bring in a lot of powerful breeds from Germany.

Their name is inaccurate because there’s a maximum of 15% to 30% of terrier genetics in the breed’s background. Instead, the black Russian terrier is a combination of 17 to 20 different breeds including: 

  • Rottweilers
  • Giant Schnauzers
  • Airedales
  • Newfoundlands, to even out their temperament a bit
  • Moscow water dogs, which are now extinct

These tireless dogs were exclusively produced by the Red Star Kennel until 1957. During their first few decades of existence, they were used by the Soviet state to patrol icy Siberian borders and guard prisoners.  

When the government demand went down, the puppies were sold to other breeders. The dogs became immensely popular throughout the Soviet countries. They guard homes and rural farms there to this day. 

In 1981 the Soviet Ministry of Agriculture decided that black Russian terriers were an independent breed. Black Russian terriers were added to the American Kennel Club’s studbooks in 2004, mostly because of the efforts of a single kennel in Oregon. 

Today these dogs are still the most popular in former Soviet countries but they’re slowly growing in numbers throughout the world.