The Rhodesian Ridgeback is a dog breed developed in Southern Africa, where it was used to hunt lions. This is most likely why this dog is known for its bravery. Its European forebears can be traced to the early pioneers of the Cape Colony of southern Africa, who crossed their dogs with the semi-domesticated, ridged hunting dogs of the Khoikhoi.
In the earlier parts of its history, the Rhodesian Ridgeback has also been known as Van Rooyen’s Lion Dogs, the African Lion Hound or African Lion Dog—Simba Inja in Ndebele, Shumba Imbwa in Shona—because of their ability to distract a lion while awaiting their master to make the kill.
The original breed standard was drafted by F.R. Barnes, in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), in 1922. Based on that of the Dalmatian, the standard was approved by the South African Kennel Union in 1926.
The Khoikhoi people occupied the Cape Peninsula during the mid 17th century when the Dutch began trading with the area and set up a trading station. These people had a dog which was used for hunting; described as ugly, but noted for its ferocity when acting as a guard dog. This dog measured 18 inches (46 cm) at the withers, with a lean but muscular frame. The ears have been described both as erect and hanging, but the most distinctive feature was the length of hair growing in the reverse direction along its back. Within 53 years of the Dutch settlement, the Europeans were using these local dogs themselves.
By the 1860s, European settlers had brought a variety of dog breeds to this area of Africa, including Bloodhounds, Greyhounds, terriers, and Foxhounds. These breeds were bred with the indigenous African dogs, including the dog of the Khoikhoi people, which resulted in the Boer hunting dogs, a forerunner to the modern Rhodesian Ridgeback.
Reverend Charles Helm traveled to the Hope Fountain Mission in Southern Rhodesia in the 1870s, taking two ridged dogs with him. It was there that Cornelius van Rooyen, a big–game hunter, saw them and decided to breed his own dogs with them to incorporate their guarding abilities. The offspring were dogs with red coats and ridges,. They became the foundation stock of a kennel which developed dogs over the next thirty five years with the ability to bay lions, that is, to hold them at bay while the hunter makes the kill. The dogs were used to hunt not only lions but also other game, including wild pigs and baboons. (They have the ability to kill a baboon independent of a human hunter.) The first breed standard was written by Mr F.R. Barnes in Bulawayo, Rhodesia in 1922. Based on that of the Dalmatian, it was approved in 1926 by the South African Kennel Union.
The Rhodesian Ridgeback’s distinguishing feature is the ridge of hair along its back, running in the opposite direction to the rest of its coat. It consists of a fan-like area formed by two whorls of hair (called “crowns”) and tapers from immediately behind the shoulders down to the level of the hips. The ridge is usually about 2 inches (5 cm) in width at its widest point. It is believed to originate from the dog used by the original African dog population, which had a similar ridge. The first depiction of a Ridgeback is a wall painting describing the life of the Boers, housed in South Africa in the Voortrekker Monument.
Male Ridgebacks should stand 25–27 inches (63–69 cm) at the withers and weigh about 85 lb (39 kg) FCI Standard); females should be 24–26 inches (61–66 cm) tall and about 70 lb (32 kg) in weight; many are much larger. Ridgebacks are typically muscular and have a light wheaten to red wheaten coat, which should be short, dense, sleek and glossy in appearance, and neither woolly nor silky. White is acceptable on the chest and toes. The presence of black guard hairs or ticking is not addressed in the AKC standard, although the elaboration of the AKC standard notes the amount of black or dark brown in the coat should not be excessive. The FCI Standard states that excessive black hairs throughout the coat are highly undesirable. Ridgebacks sometimes have a dark mask. The dog’s nose should be black or brown (liver) in keeping with the color of the dog. No other colored nose is permissible. The brown nose is a recessive gene. It is not as common as a black nose; some breeders believe the inclusion of brown noses in a breeding program is necessary for maintaining the vibrancy of the coat. The eyes should be round and should reflect the dog’s color: dark eyes with a black nose, amber eyes with a brown (liver) nose. Ridgebacks have a strong, smooth tail, which is usually carried in a gentle curve backwards.
The original standard allowed for a variety of coat colors, including brindle and sable. The modern FCI standard calls for light wheaten to red wheaten.
Other dog breeds also have a reverse line of fur along the spine, including the Phu Quoc ridgeback dog and Thai Ridgeback. The Thai Ridgeback is a crossbreed of the Phu Quoc; historians have speculated the relationship between the Rhodesian Ridgeback and the Phu Quoc with suggestions that historically one breed may have been imported to the other’s location.
Rhodesian Ridgebacks are loyal and intelligent and somewhat aloof to strangers. This is not to be confused with aggression; a Ridgeback of proper temperament will be more inclined to ignore, rather than challenge, a stranger. This breed requires positive, reward-based training, good socialization and consistency; it is often not the best choice for inexperienced dog owners. Ridgebacks are strong-willed, intelligent, and many seem to have a penchant for mischief, though loving. They are protective of their owners and families. If trained well, they can be excellent guard dogs.
Despite their athletic, sometimes imposing, exterior, the Ridgeback has a sensitive side. Excessively harsh training methods, that might be tolerated by a sporting or working dog, will likely backfire on a Ridgeback. The Ridgeback accepts correction as long as it is fair and justified, and as long as it comes from someone he knows and trusts. Francis R. Barnes, who wrote the first standard in 1922, acknowledged that “rough treatment … should never be administered to these dogs, especially when they are young. They go to pieces with handling of that kind.”
Health conditions known to affect this breed are hip dysplasia and dermoid sinus. The Ridgeback ranks number six in terms of most affected breeds for thyroid problems recorded by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. UK breed survey puts the average lifespan at 10.25 years.
 Dermoid sinus
Dermoid sinus is a congenital neural-tube defect that is known to affect this breed. The dermoid is often likened to a thin “spaghetti noodle” beneath the skin. Puppies should always be screened at birth by the breeder and veterinarian, and the examination repeated as the puppies grow before they go to their new homes. This is done by palpation of the subcutaneous dorsal midline from the base of the skull to the insertion of the tail. Surgical removal is an option for affected neonates, puppies and adult dogs. All affected dogs, even those surgically corrected, should be spayed or neutered and never be bred, since surgical dermoid sinus removal can be extremely cost prohibitive, and because all unremoved dermoid sinuses will eventually abscess. Abscessed dermoid sinuses will be at best a recurrent, painful problem, and if the sinus communicates with the tissues around the spinal cord, cause meningitis and often death. However, it has been shown that supplementation of folic acid to the diet of the brood bitch before mating and during pregnancy reduces the incidence of dermoid sinus.
While deafness is not a common problem in the breed, Rhodesian Ridgebacks do suffer from a breed specific form of the disease. Researchers at the University of California at Davis have located the mutation that causes this relatively rare, but breed-specific, form of deafness.
Degenerative myelopathy (DM) is a disease of the spinal cord causing progressive paraparesis, most commonly in the German shepherd dog breed. It affects Rhodesian Ridgebacks at a rate of only 0.75%.
Hypothyroidism is a growing problem in the Rhodesian Ridgeback, and this condition causes a multitude of symptoms, including weight gain and hair loss. Treatment for hypothyroidism in dogs consists of an inexpensive once-daily oral medication. Dr. Lorna Kennedy at the University of Manchester’s Centre for Integrated Genomic Medical Research in England has found the haplotype (group of genes), which, when present, double the chances of a Ridgeback becoming hypothyroid due to lymphocytic thyroiditis. This is important to the breed because lymphocytic thyroiditis is the overwhelming cause of hypothyroidism in Ridgebacks.
RRCUS H&G – The Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of the United States maintains a web site devoted to the breed’s health issues that also gathers ongoing research for their Health & Genetics Committee. This group recommends that breeders perform at least four health screenings: hips, elbows, thyroid and eyes, with cardiac and hearing tests optional.
CRRHS – It is also recommend that all Ridgeback owners enter their dogs’ information in the Comprehensive Rhodesian Ridgeback Health Survey.
The genotype responsible for the ridge was recently found by a consortium of researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (Nicolette Salmon Hillbertz, Göran Andersson, et al.), Uppsala University (Leif Andersson, Mats Nilsson, et al.) and the Broad Institute (Kerstin Lindblad-Toh, et al.).
The only disqualification in the AKC standard for this breed is “ridgelessness”. This term refers to the purebred offspring of heterozygous parental animals that do not inherit a copy of the ridge mutation from either parent and are, in effect, normal dogs without a ridged back. The most current research suggests that the ridge mutation is autosomal dominant with complete penetrance. However, while the few studies that have analyzed the issue do not agree on the incidence of ridgelessness within the breed, they all show a ridgeless rate significantly lower than 25%, which cannot be explained using the Punnett square model for single gene/two allele inheritance.
One possible reason for these studies to deviate from the expected 25% incidence of ridgelessness is inclusion of parents who were not heterozygous (possessing a copy of both the ridgeless and ridged allele) in the study. The inclusion of homozygotes (possessing two copies of the ridged alleles) would make the observed incidence be less than 25% when averaged across the population in the study. Since a molecular genetic test for the ridge gene does not exist, heterozygotes are detected by mating the animal in question to either known heterozygotes or known homozygous recessives (other methods exist such as mating to offspring, but result in inbred offspring) and a heterozygote is detected when a ridgeless pup is born. Note that 1) many matings are required to have a high probability of detecting a homozygous dominant (once a ridgeless pup is produced, the animal in question is assumed to be homozygous without question), and 2) more than one sire can produce the pups in one litter. The latter fact can cast doubt on the calling of male heterozygotes by this method and could possibly lead to the results shown in studies testing the mode of inheritance of ridgelessness.
Traditionally, many ridgeback puppies were culled at birth for numerous reasons, including ridgelessness. Contemporary breeders are increasingly opting for surgical sterilization of these offspring to ensure they will not be bred but can live into maturity as non-showing, non-breeding pets. Some breed parent clubs and canine registries have even made the culling of ridgeless whelps a requirement. It was pointed out on the BBC One investigative documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed that The Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of Great Britain’s “code of ethics”, which is ratified annually by the Kennel Club states that “Ridgeless puppies shall be culled”, and that “mismarked” puppies will only ever be sold on condition that they are never shown, and are neutered. The Ridgeback Club defended itself pointing to the statement that follows, “if a breeder finds this morally impossible [to cull the puppy] the puppy shall be homed…” as indication that culling is not mandatory, but preferred. It was only after the publicity surrounding the promotion of culling that they reversed their code of ethics to say “no healthy puppy will be culled.”
The historic and modern hunting uses of Rhodesian Ridgebacks have included everything from upland game birds to larger ‘dangerous game’. While the hunting versatility of the breed has served it well in the field, it has caused much confusion and contention among Ridgeback fanciers about what these dogs are, and are not, as hunting companions. Throughout its history, the Rhodesian Ridgeback has been a breed of dog that has somewhat defied the strict interpretation of most conventional group classification paradigms.
In 1922 Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Francis Barnes standardized the breed using the existing Dalmatian standard as a model – there was no mention of a preferred group placement. Although no parent club was ‘officially’ recognized at the time, in September 1924 the South African Kennel Union or SAKU (now the Kennel Union of South Africa or KUSA http://www.kusa.co.za/) began taking “Lion Dog” registrations. In February 1926, SAKU (KUSA) officially recognized the Rhodesian Parent Club. At the behest of Barnes, SAKU also made two changes at this time:
- The Union’s official name for the breed was changed from ‘Rhodesian Lion Dog’ to ‘Rhodesian Ridgeback’.
- The breed was placed in the Union’s ‘Gundog’ group.
On this second point Barnes was emphatic, stating “I am breeding a gundog.” The Rhodesian Ridgeback remained classified as a Gundog for over 20 years thence.
Although the Rhodesian Ridgeback’s bird hunting prowess has been well known throughout the breed’s history (the original description from the South African parent club belabors this point in fact), it is important to note that the “Gundog” classification made in 1920s Southern Rhodesia and South Africa was not specifically about bird hunting. To understand this it is necessary to understand the Union’s classification system at that time. The two likely categories Barnes could have chosen from within the SAKU classification system at that time were, “Sporting” and “Gundog”. In the “Sporting” group were the Sighthounds and Scenthounds. In the “Gundog” group were the Birddogs. This raises the question why Barnes rejected the group containing the Sighthounds and Scenthounds, and successfully lobbied in favor of the group containing the Birddogs. Barnes’ reasoning becomes clear with an understanding of the distinction between the two groups. The Union’s “Sporting” dogs were those that would find game above ground, and were then expected to dispatch the game without assistance. The Union’s “Gundogs” were those that find game above ground, and the human hunter was then expected to dispatch the game by means of a firearm. Within this context, the Rhodesian Ridgeback—which was clearly expected to hold the lion at bay for the hunter—not to attempt to dispatch the lion unassisted by the gun, placement in the Union’s Gundog group becomes the logical choice within that system as it existed at that time.
Over time the culturally perceived meanings of the group labels had changed to those closer to their modern meanings, and the Union eventually became a federated member of the FCI, and therefore adopted its group categorization system. By 1940, Barnes had resigned from the Rhodesian Parent Club and prompted by the lobbying of a newer generation of leadership within the Rhodesian Parent Club, in the 1950s, the breed’s group classification was changed from “Gundog” to “Hound”.
Today, there are at least five competing theories concerning proper group placement for the Rhodesian Ridgeback.
1) Scenthound – This theory arises from the fact that the southern African landscape in general, and the Zimbabwean landscape specifically, is an extremely varied and diverse terrain, where a true sighthound would be severely handicapped in its finding ability in the game producing cover of the bushveldt, thornveldt, and kopjes. Proponents of the scenthound classification also observe that the Ridgeback bears very little resemblance to the decidedly northern African desert breed sighthounds, in either form or function. And while proponents of this theory freely admit that Ridgebacks are undoubtedly athletic ‘running’ dogs, they draw the distinction that Ridgebacks do not pursue game by sheer speed, which is typical of the true sighthounds associated with the northern half of the continent.
2) Sighthound – This theory is based on the fact that some of the foundation stock used by Cornelius Van Rooyen during the creation of the breed was Sighthound stock. Support for this theory has grown in areas (most notably in the United States) where Ridgebacks have been allowed to compete with sighthounds in lure-coursing field trials. The theory’s detractors contend that success in lure coursing trials does not in and of itself make a dog a true sighthound, and further bolster their contention by pointing out that Ridgebacks are very poor performers when allowed to run in unofficial open field courses where they typically cannot keep up with the true sighthounds. Even so, no one can argue that Ridgebacks have not been successful at lure coursing events. In fact Ridgebacks have been very competitive in almost every lure coursing venue in which they have been allowed to compete. Proponents of this theory will often further defend it with a (hotly debated) claim that while Ridgebacks are versatile and use all their senses, their first and strongest inclination is to find game by sight—which itself is considered normal for dogs of any type, when the game is actually in sight.
3) U.K.C. Cur Dog – This theory is based on the United Kennel Club‘s (the leading ‘working dog’ registry in the U.S.) classification system which, within the scenthounds, includes a sub-group known as “Cur Dogs”. Contrary to the traditional/historical meaning of the term “Cur”, these dogs are neither mongrels, nor dogs of dubious breeding or value. Quite the contrary, the UKC Cur-Dogs are pure-bred, versatile hunting and livestock dogs. These pure breeds were typically developed by pioneering peoples who needed a dog that was highly protective of the family and farm, as well as a capable stock driver. Most importantly the dog was required to pursue various species of game both small and large game alike, in a manner inconsistent with the rest of the Hounds (sight or scent). The UKC Cur Dog does so using all of its senses – hearing, sight, and scent as the situation demands. This classification theory is consistent with old breed descriptions, which are somewhat contrary to the more classical sighthound/scenthound types, like the one offered in an advertisement run by the Rhodesian Parent Club in a show catalogue in 1926, “… Rhodesian Ridgeback (Lion Dogs) are unsurpassed for hunting and veld (sic) work. Ever faithful and loyal to their owners, highly intelligent and reliable guards.”
4) Wagon Dog/Wagon Hound – This theory was forwarded at the 2008 Rhodesian Ridgeback World Congress, and contends that an honest evaluation of the breed’s functional history indicates that during its formative development and early use as a breed, the Ridgeback was much more a “Hunter’s/Farmer’s Ox-Wagon Dog” than it was a “Lion Dog”. This theory aligns itself with the current FCI classification of the breed, Group 6.3 (a special type of scenthound). However, the important distinction in this theory is not that the FCI classification of “scenthound” is accurate, but rather, that placing the Dalmatian and the Rhodesian Ridgeback (the only breeds currently in FCI group 6.3), breeds that historically have served as versatile hunting/wagon dogs, should indeed be classified as two examples of the same type of dog, but further asserts that such dogs’ classification makes more sense as a discrete group. This classification theory is generally supported by historical accounts that mirror the one offered by Phyllis Archdale who went to Southern Africa in 1919 and bred Ridgebacks there in the 1920s, “Old timers told me that in early days most Dutch transport riders had a Ridgehound as guard to their wagons. They were used to bail up lion and wild pig. Mine did both…”
5) Ridged Primitive – There is also a group of Ridgeback fanciers who believe Rhodesian Ridgebacks should be thought of in terms of the FCI’s group 5.8. FCI group 5 includes the Spitze and related primitives. FCI group 5.8 specifically is “Primitive type Hunting Dogs with a ridge on the back”. The theory’s detractors note that the Rhodesian Ridgeback was not only developed in the late 19th century and standardized in the early 20th century, but developed specifically to “hunt to the gun” and as such is in fact a very modern creation, and anything but “primitive”. But supporters of the theory contend that enough of the foundational stock is ancient, including the Greyhound and the Khoikhoi dog (from which the ridged back derives), that even though it was developed relatively recently and for use with modern firearms, the breed can still be considered to be of a “primitive type”.
Current registry classifications
Presently, the breed is categorized as a “hound” by every major registry throughout the world. For example, the British Kennel Club and the Canadian Kennel club both categorize the Rhodesian Ridgeback as a Hound, without any further specification. Both of the major registries in the United States, the AKC and the UKC, currently further distinguish the breed as a Sighthound. The FCI, the largest international canine governing body, which looks to the parent club in the country of origin (the Parent Club in Zimbabwe) for the breed standard and group classification, currently further distinguishes the Rhodesian Ridgeback as a Scenthound.