The Rhodesian Ridgeback is a hunting dog developed in the nations of South Africa and Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia. The breed was tasked with hunting all manner of African game, but is most famous for its ability to fearlessly hunt lions. Although the breed is classified as a hound, the Rhodesian Ridgeback actualyexhibits the strong protective ability more commonly found in certain working breeds. The Rhodesian Ridgeback is has also been known as the Rhodesian Lion Dog, African Lion Dog, Simba Inja in Ndebele, Lion Dog, Shumba Imbwa in Shona, Van Rooyen's Lion Dog, and the Ridgeback.
Although the Rhodesian Ridgeback was named for the country of Rhodesia, most of the breeds actual development occurred in South Africa. The breed’s history begins with the Khoi Khoi and San peoples of Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. Once known as Hottentots (although this term is now considered obsolete and somewhat offensive), these peoples have been native to Southwestern Africa for thousands of years. A very primitive people, for much of this time they did not practice agriculture, and instead still lived the primitive lifestyle of a hunter-gatherer. The first domestic animal to be introduced into the region was the dog, although it is unclear when and how that occurred. Eventually, cattle and other livestock would follow the dog, introduced by Bantu-speaking groups from the northeast. The introduction of domestic animals would lead the Khoi Khoi to begin practicing agriculture, eventually becoming highly skilled pastoralists, while the San would remain hunter-gatherers. Although the Khoi Khoi were no longer dependent upon hunting to survive, having opted instead to raise and slaughter domestic animals, they were still more than willing to supplement their diets with the occasional hunt. Like other civilizations in different parts of the world at the time, hunting was accomplished by using dogs to track or run down prey animals and either kill them or hold them until their master could arrive and make the kill. Over the ensuing centuries both groups (the Khoi Khoi and the San) would continue to use their dogs not only for hunting, but also for protection and companionship.
At some point, the dogs of the Khoi Khoi and San developed a unique ridge of hair on their backs. Considered a genetic mutation this ridge goes directly down the spine, and consists of hair that grows in the opposite direction from that of the rest of the back. This ridge was probably selectively bred into the breed from native dogs with the same mutation. However, some doubt this theory as a very similar ridge is found in two other breeds, the Thai Ridgeback and the Phu Quoc Ridgeback, both of which are native to Southeast Asia. It has long been speculated that the mutation causing the ridge either originated in Asia and spread to Africa or originated in Africa and spread to Asia. However, there is no evidence to support either theory and considering how isolated the two regions were from each other in historical times, this is very unlikely. It is considerably more likely that European traders brought the African Ridgebacks to Asia rather than vice versa, but still regarded as highly unlikely.
Because the Khoi Khoi and San did not keep written records, and the back ridge would likely not show up in archaeological records, it is impossible to say when such dogs were developed. It was definitely some time before 1652 when the Dutch East India Company founded Kaapstad, better known as Cape Town. The Dutch East India Company saw Kaapstad as a valuable resting point for ships traveling from Europe on their way to India, China, and Indonesia. The climate of the region is very similar to that of Europe, allowing European crops to grow not allowing tropical diseases to survive. Dutch farmers began to settle in the region, both to supply sailing vessels with food and to gain personal freedom. In addition to a continuous stream of Dutch, a number of Germans, Scandinavians, French, and other European nationalities arrived as well. From a very early time, the European settlers saw the Khoi Khoi as subhumans to be exploited, rather than members of an ancient and sustainable culture. The Europeans took whatever property of the Khoi Khoi and San that they wanted, to include their ridgebacked dogs. These foreign invaders saw the Ridgeback not only as unique, but also as valuable breeding stock to improve European breeds that had been brought to Africa.
As was the case everywhere else in the world colonized by Europeans, a large variety of dogs breeds began to arrive in the area accompanying their masters. One of the first Dutch ships to arrive brought at least one Bullenbeiser, the ancestor of the modern Boxer. A number of other Mastiff-type dogs were imported, as well as scent hounds, sight hounds, and herding dogs. Such dogs became an integral part of the lives of early settlers. They provided food, companionship, protection, and sport in a land that was often unforgiving. Unfortunately, many European breeds were ill-suited to the considerably more challenging and more expansive African terrain. Additionally the climate also posed a problem for these non native breeds with its scorching day time temperatures that dropped to near freezing at nighttime. These non native breeds were also often plagued by illness as they had no natural defense against the different diseases and parasites found in Africa. Perhaps most importantly, there was an entirely different collection of animals, many of which were larger and more dangerous than those found in Europe.
European settlers, who eventually became known as Boers or Afrikaaners, were aware of the difficulties faced by their native breeds in the African environment and began to breed dogs that were better suited to life there. The most logical solution at the time was to crossed their own dogs with the native ridgebacked dogs of the Khoi Khoi and San. It is unclear what or how many breeds were used, but it was probably a significant number. Scent hounds such as the Hanoverian Hound and sight hounds such as the Greyhound were certainly used, as were a wide variety of mixed breed dogs. Mastiff-type dogs such as the Great Dane and Bullenbeiser are also known to have played a role, and it is suspected that a few herding breeds like the Dutch Shepherd did as well. Such crosses between various European breeds resulted in several distinctive dog types, the most famous of which was the Boerboel, a Molosser-type protection animal, and a hound-type hunting dog which would later become known as the Rhodesian Ridgeback.
The Boers expanded their colonization efforts both rapidly and far from Cape Town. Often, farmers would be isolated from other humans for many months at a time. Such families greatly preferred the ridgebacked hounds. These dogs were incredibly well-adapted to life in the Cape Colony’s harsh climate, probably as a result of their descent from native dogs. They had incredibly keen noses and eyesight, likely from their scent hound and sight hound forebears. Perhaps most importantly, they had significant power and great ferocity from their Mastiff ancestors. This breed became capable of hunting and protecting its family from some of the most dangerous predators in the world; lions, leopards, and hyenas. The breeds protective ability was perhaps valued above all else, as the ridgeback would come home from a day hunting in the bush to protect its master’s family from night time predators. Because they were so skilled at hunting lions, the breed became known as the Lion Dog.
A series of political changes rocked the Cape Colony beginning in 1795, the year British first took control of Cape Town. Many Afrikaaners had no desire to live under British law, beginning a long history of cultural, political, and military conflict that lasting into the 20th Century. Perhaps as a result of this conflict, the ridgeback remained essentially unknown outside of South Africa. The conflict, however, did not prevent substantial British expansion, and by the 1870’s, Britain controlled much of Southern Africa, including the territory known as Southern Rhodesia. Southern Rhodesia consisted of the modern day nation of Zimbabwe and had been named after Cecil Rhodes, a famed British Imperialist. Like South Africa, Rhodesia had a substantial population of European settlers, mainly of British descent. In 1875, the Reverend Charles Helm went on a missionary trip to Southern Rhodesia, from his home in Swellendam in the Cape Province. He brought two Lion Dogs along with him. In Rhodesia, Helm met the famous wildlife expert and big game hunter Cornelius Von Rooyen.
One day Von Rooyen asked to borrow the two dogs so that they could accompany him on a hunting trip. Von Rooyen was so impressed with the dogs’ natural hunting abilities and suitability for the African environment that he decided to create his own kennel. The efforts of Von Rooyen would greatly popularize the breed in Southern Rhodesia, where the breed was eventually standardized and modified into the modern form. The Lion Dog became so popular in Southern Rhodesia that it became more associated with that country than its actual homeland. In time, the breed would become better known amongst English speaking peoples as the Rhodesian Ridgeback. Because of the wide open terrain of Southern Africa, the Rhodesian Ridgeback was developed to have immense stamina to cover it. The Rhodesian Ridgeback also became a silent hunter and capable of taking direction via hand signals or using its own inherent intelligence to stalk and ambush its prey. The wide open terrain meant that hunters could easily see their dogs across the savannah at great distances, making loud calls which would scare the prey impossible.
In 1922, a dog show was held in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia. Many Rhodesian Ridgeback fanciers were in attendance, and it was here that they founded the first breed club. One of their first orders of business was to create the first written standard for the breed, which was based heavily on that of the Dalmatian. In 1924, the South African Kennel Union granted the breed full recognition, although there were initially few registrations. However, as one of South Africa’s few native breeds, the Rhodesian Ridgeback is uniquely suited to life in that country. These dogs quickly gained popularity there, and the Rhodesian Ridgeback is currently one of South Africa’s most popular breeds.
It is unclear when the first Rhodesian Ridgeback was imported into the United States. At least a few were brought to that country before World War II, possibly as early as 1912. However, the breed did not become well-established until after 1945. In the years following World War II, a large number of Rhodesian Ridgebacks were imported to the United States, many of which were thought to be of exceptional quality. The first Rhodesian Ridgebacks in America were imported mainly by those interested in conformation shows, but many found their way into the hands of hunters as well. Rhodesian Ridgebacks have been used across the United States, Canada, and Mexico for hunting. This dog has tackled essentially every game found in North America, and is thought to be especially skilled at hunting cougar, bobcat, and deer. The Rhodesian Ridgeback is best suited to hunting the open plains and prairie which predominate the central regions of North America, where its silent hunting and great stamina are most advantageous. In rougher or more forested terrain, Rhodesian Ridgebacks are almost always accompanied by baying dogs such as English Coonhounds.
In 1948, a group of American Rhodesian Ridgeback fanciers formed the Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of America (RRCA)in order to begin keepings stud books and to prepare the breed for recognition with the American Kennel Club (AKC). Their efforts were rewarded in 1955, when the AKC officially recognized the breed as a member of the Hound Group. Shortly thereafter, the Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of the United States (RRCUS) was formed to organize Rhodesian Ridgeback events with the AKC. Initially the two clubs operated independently but with many of the same members, that is until March 6, 1959, when they were combined under the name RRCUS. The RRCUS began to foster close relationships with breed clubs in South Africa, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, the United Kingdom, and Canada. In 1971, the RRCUS became the breed’s official member club with the AKC. In 1980, the United Kennel Club (UKC) also granted full recognition to the Rhodesian Ridgeback, as a member of the Sight Hound/Pariah Group.
The Rhodesian Ridgeback is beginning to grow in popularity in the United States. As the breed has very limited public exposure, much of this growth is due to word of mouth and personal contact. Many who meet or own one of these dogs become incredibly devoted to the breed, and Rhodesian Ridgebacks are usually very well-represented at most major dog shows. The Rhodesian Ridgeback is especially favored by those who want some combination of a hunting dog, family pet, and protection animal. Long distance runners are also beginning to discover that this dog makes an excellent training partner. In 2010, the Rhodesian Ridgeback ranked 46th out of 167 total breeds, 11 spots higher than a decade earlier. However, the relatively substantial exercise and other requirements of this dog mean that it is definitely not well-suited to every owner and it is likely that the breed’s popularity will eventually peak. The Rhodesian Ridgeback remains a capable hunter, and many of these dogs are still used for their original purpose, especially in Africa. However, in America, the majority of breed members are now kept as companion animals and guard dogs, a trend that is likely to continue into the future.
The Rhodesian Ridgeback is usually classified as a hound, but is considerably more powerfully built than most other members of that group. The Rhodesian Ridgeback is a relatively large breed. Males typically stand between 25 and 27 inches in height and weigh between 80 and 90 pounds. The smaller females typically stand between 24 and 26 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh between 65 and 75 pounds. The Rhodesian Ridgeback should be powerfully built, but under no circumstances should it appear thick or massive. These dogs are meant to be quick-footed and agile athletes, and should always look as such. There are few breeds which appear as muscular as a Rhodesian Ridgeback in good condition. The Rhodesian Ridgeback is slightly longer than it is tall, but looks quite balanced. The tail of the Rhodesian Ridgeback is of average length. It tapers substantially towards the tip and is carried out from the body and with a substantial curve in the middle.
The head of the Rhodesian Ridgeback sits at the end of fairly long neck. The head itself is of average size and proportion, but is somewhat flat and boxy. The muzzle is distinct from the head but still blends in quite well. The muzzle of this breed looks powerful and long, although not massive. The lips of this breed are ideally close fitting, but some Rhodesian Ridgebacks have minor jowls. Although many Rhodesian Ridgebacks have the seemingly extra facial skin common to hounds, only a few would ever be called wrinkly. The nose color of the Rhodesian Ridgeback may be either black or brown, depending on the dog’s coat. Similarly, eye color is determined by nose color with black-nosed dogs having darker eyes and brown-nosed dogs having lighter eyes. No matter their color, the eyes should be round, bright, sparkling, and set well-apart. The ears of this breed are relatively long, but not excessively so. They hang down close to the head, and narrow to a rounded point at the end. The overall expression of most breed members is intelligent and slightly pleading.
By far the most important characteristic of the Rhodesian Ridgeback is its coat. In general, the dog’s coat is short, sleek, glossy, and dense. On the breed’s back is the famed ridge, a line of hair that grows in the opposite direction from that on the rest of the back. While most of the hair grows towards the tail, the hair on the ridge grows towards the head. The ridge begins right behind the shoulders and extends to right between the hips. There are two distinct crowns or whorls on the ridge, which should be directly opposite each other and extend no more than a third of the way down the ridge. Some Rhodesian Ridgebacks have more or less than two crowns, and some have none at all. Although rare, Rhodesian Ridgebacks are also occasionally born with no tail at all. Such dogs are disqualified from the show ring and should not be bred, but are otherwise no different from other Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Rhodesian Ridgebacks are solidly-colored dogs, and range in shade from light wheaten to red wheaten. Many Rhodesian Ridgebacks have a black muzzle and/or ears which are perfectly acceptable but not always present. Many Rhodesian Ridgebacks also have black hairs scattered over their entire bodies, but this is seen as highly undesirable. Many breed members have small patches of white on the chest and toes, but white anywhere else on the body is seen as undesirable.
The Rhodesian Ridgeback is one of the few breeds with a intermediate temperament between that of a typical hound and a typical protection breed. This dog is known for being very loyal and attached to its family with whom it forms close bonds. Many Rhodesian Ridgeback owners claim that their dog is their personal favorite of all the pets that they have had. While most Rhodesian Ridgebacks are quite affectionate with their owners, their neediness levels vary considerably. Many breed members think that they are lap dogs, while others like to be in the same room as their owners but not necessarily on top of them. Rhodesian Ridgebacks are almost certainly the most territorial and defensive of the hound breeds, and most are reserved and aloof with strangers. While well-socialized breed members are very rarely human aggressive, dogs that have not been properly trained do sometimes develop aggression issues.
The Rhodesian Ridgeback is extremely vigilant and makes an intimidating watchdog. Unlike almost all other hounds, this breed can also be protection trained, and makes a very powerful guard dog. Even those dogs which have not been protection trained tend to challenge intruders, and this is not a dog that would allow any harm to befall a member of its family. Rhodesian Ridgebacks have a generally good reputation with children, with whom they form close bonds. This breed is often very affectionate and playful with children, especially those in its family. Rhodesian Ridgebacks, especially puppies, may not make the best housemates for very young children, as they have a tendency to play a little bit too rough (out of exuberance, not aggression). As is the case with all dogs, Rhodesian Ridgebacks that have not been properly exposed to children may have their prey drives triggered by them so close supervision is always necessary.
The Rhodesian Ridgeback is considered average with other dogs. Most breed members are tolerant of other dogs, especially of the opposite sex. However, many Rhodesian Ridgebacks develop dominance and territorial issues, and are more than willing to get into a scrap to defend their perceived social position or territory. Such behavior must be carefully controlled because these dogs are more than capable of seriously injuring most other canines. Like many (most) other dogs, Rhodesian Ridgebacks frequently develop issues with dogs of the same sex, but these problems are most common and severe between unneutered males. Rhodesian Ridgebacks have somewhat greater issues with non-canine animals. Most breed members have high prey drives, and attempt to chase whatever they see. If left alone in a yard, some Rhodesian Ridgebacks will occasionally bring back a “present” of a small dead animal. That being said, this dog is not hyper-animal aggressive and is usually very tolerant and accepting of cats, horses, and other animals that it has been properly socialized with. Most breed members are very trustworthy with the family cat, although they may not be with strange cats.
This breed is considered to be one of the most trainable, if not the most trainable, of all hounds. Rhodesian Ridgebacks are quite intelligent, and most are quick learners. Rhodesian Ridgebacks have competed successfully in agility and obedience competitions. While generally willing to please, the Rhodesian Ridgeback is certainly not eager to do so, and this dog can cause training difficulties for many masters. Many breed members are somewhat stubborn, and some are willful. In general, this breed tends to be very challenging. Rhodesian Ridgebacks regularly seek to assert a position of dominance with the pack, and will quickly do so if their owners are not in a constant position of authority. This breed is not advised for novice dog owners because it tends to walk-all-over them. Owners must use the appropriate training techniques on Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Although seemingly tough, this breed is incredibly sensitive and harsh training techniques such as jerking or yelling often cause them to refuse additional training or even develop behavioral and mental problems. Techniques that emphasis positive reinforcement and rewards work considerably better with this breed.
Rhodesian Ridgebacks are very energetic and need to be provided with an outlet for that energy. This breed absolutely needs to be given a substantial amount of vigorous daily exercise, ideally at least an hour. Rhodesian Ridgebacks require a very long daily walk at the very least, but strongly prefer to run. The Rhodesian Ridgeback makes one of the best jogging and running companions of all dogs, and can even outlast long-distance runners. Although it has been done, Rhodesian Ridgebacks generally adapt poorly to apartment life as they truly want a yard to run around in. Owners must be very careful about where they let their dogs run around. This breed is quite powerful and athletic, and can escape many fences. It is absolutely imperative that a Rhodesian Ridgeback gets the exercise it needs, or they almost certainly will develop behavioral issues. In particular, breed members are likely to become destructive, and this is a dog that is capable of destroying an entire house. Although energetic, the Rhodesian Ridgeback is certainly not a hyperactive breed, and they will adjust to somewhat less active families. When this breed is provided the energy outlet that it needs, it tends to be a true couch potato. Properly cared for Rhodesian Ridgebacks tend to laze the day napping on a sofa.
Rhodesian Ridgebacks are known for being exceptionally clean dogs. They regularly clean themselves and many fanciers claim that they have a very weak odor or none at all. This breed is also known to housebreak very easily. Most breed members only drool when they are in anticipation of food. Owners do need to make sure their counters are clear of food, as this intelligent and highly food-motivated dog is an infamous “counter surfer.”
The Rhodesian Ridgeback has very minimal grooming requirements. It should never need professional grooming, and only needs to be brushed down once or twice a week. The only other required maintenance is standard for all dogs, such as nail clippings and ear cleanings. The Rhodesian Ridgeback does shed, but not very much. Most breed members that spend their lives indoors shed a little bit all year round. These dogs will leave some hair on your furniture, clothes, and carpets, but probably not enough to create a real issue. Breed members that live primarily outdoors tend to be relatively heavy seasonal shedders, but not to the extent of most Spitz-type dogs.
Rhodesian Ridgebacks are considered to be of average health. A few health problems are quite common in Rhodesian Ridgebacks, especially dermoid sinus, hip dysplasia, and hypothyroidism, but most of these are not life-threatening. Additionally, although those health problems that exist are relatively common, there are not many total problems. These dogs live an average of 10 to 12 years, on the higher end of average for a breed of this size. Armed with a better understanding of genetics and veterinary medicine, modern breeders are taking steps to identify potential health problems and to eliminate them from breeding lines.
The problem of most concern for the Rhodesian Ridgeback is known as dermoid sinus. dermoid sinus is typified by a tubular indentation of the skin over the spine. There can either be one or multiple tracts, some or all of which can extend as deeply as the spine. The condition is caused by a folic acid deficiency during the early stages of pregnancy, leading to improper fetal growth. Dermoid sinus is usually quite painful, and often results in infections, myelitis, and meningitis. Depending on the location of the dermoid sinus, it can cause severe neurologic defects. The only cure for dermoid sinus is complete surgical removal. The complexity and expense of the procedure varies depending on the condition’s severity and location, but any surgery can be life threatening and financially costly. This disease is so common in Rhodesian Ridgebacks that any litter may have several affected puppies. There are now screening tests which can identify this condition at an early age, and any owner looking to purchase a Rhodesian Ridgeback should make sure that the puppy has been tested.
Because skeletal and visual problems have been known to occur in this breed (hip dysplasia is quite commonly seen) it is highly advisable for owners to have their pets tested by both the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF). The OFA and CERF perform genetic and other tests to identify potential health defects before they show up. This is especially valuable in the detection of conditions that do not show up until the dog has reached an advanced age, making it especially important for anyone considering breeding their dog to have them tested to prevent the spread of potential genetic conditions to its offspring.
A list of health problems which have been identified in Rhodesian Ridgebacks would have to include: