Rhodesian Ridgeback: Breed History, Temperament, and FAQs
What You Really Need to Know About the Rhodesian Ridgeback
The Rhodesian Ridgeback is a dog breed indigenous to southern Africa. Its peculiar ridge of hair, running parallel to the spine and in reverse to the rest of the coat, distinguishes it from other dogs. In this article, you'll learn:
- History and origin of the breed
- Why it’s called the “Lion Dog” or “Lion Hunting Dog”
- Physical characteristics (including size, weight and lifespan)
- More about the distinguishing ridge on its back
- Temperament and personality
- Questions to ask yourself before you get a Rhodesian Ridgeback
- Training tips specific to the breed
- Other care requirements
What Is the Breed's History and Background?
This breed can be traced to the early pioneers of the Cape Colony of Africa, who crossed their dogs with the semi-domesticated, ridged hunting dogs of the Khoisan people.
During the 19th century, big game hunting flourished in South Africa, particularly in the area north of the Limpopo River, later to become known as Rhodesia (after its founder Cecil John Rhodes). When the first white people arrived in this area, they found that the Khosian people (known to the colonists as "Hottentots") at the Cape were using dogs of the Ridgeback type for hunting purposes. Hunters were quick to realize the value and importance of good hunting dogs. In choosing dogs to fill this role, it was natural that they turned to a native breed: the Ridgeback, a dog that had, for generations, proved such a boon to the African Hottentot.
Is the Rhodesian Ridgeback a mix of breeds?
The origin of the breed is not definitely known, but the most generally accepted view seems to be that it is the result of crossing the Cuban Bloodhound with the Hottentot hunting dog, the latter supplying the characteristic ridge. From such a breeding, one would expect just such characteristics as the Ridgeback so markedly shows: speed, power, courage, fidelity and a remarkable skill in tackling wild animals.
The original breed standard was drafted by F.R. Barnes in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (modern-day Zimbabwe), in 1922. It was based on that of the Dalmatian and was approved by the South African Kennel Union in 1926.
Why is the Ridgeback called "Lion Dog" or "Lion Hunting Dog"?
In the earlier parts of its history, Rhodesian Ridgebacks have also been known as Van Rooyen's Lion Dogs, African Lion Hounds or African Lion Dogs—"Simba Inja" in Ndebele or "Shumba Imbwa" in Shona—because of their ability to harass a lion and keep it at bay while waiting for their master to make the kill.
Names like "Lion Dog" became popular only because several big game hunters found this breed to be by far the best for lion hunting. Unfortunately, these names led many to assume that the dogs were the actual killers of lions—although no dog would have stood a chance in a fight with a lion!
Ridgebacks would simply harass the lion by constant feint attacks until it was held in sheer bewilderment, giving the hunter a shot at close range. With the advent of long-range rifles, hunters dispensed with the use of dogs, so the Ridgeback has had to turn to its other vocation: guard dog.
What Are the Ridgeback's Physical Traits?
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. Ridgebacks have a strong, smooth tail, which is usually carried in a gentle curve backwards. The eyes should be round and should reflect the dog's color—skin pigment, not coat color—which means you'll see dark eyes with a black nose (regardless of coat color) and amber eyes with a liver nose.
Can a Rhodesian Ridgeback have a liver nose?
Yes. The liver nose is a recessive gene so therefore is not as common as a black nose; some breeders believe the inclusion of liver noses in a breeding program is necessary for maintaining the vibrancy of the coat.
What is the average size, weight and lifespan for a Ridgeback?
Male Ridgebacks should be 25–27 inches (63–69 cm) at the withers and weigh approximately 85 lb (36.5 kg FCI Standard). Females are 24–26 inches (61–66 cm) and approximately 70 lb (32 kg).
Rhodesian Ridgebacks live to be 10–12 years of age.
Why is this breed called a "Ridgeback"?
The 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. Some Ridgebacks are born without ridges, and until recently, most ridgeless puppies were culled at birth. Today, many breeders opt instead to spay and neuter these offspring to ensure they will not be bred.
Other breeds with a ridge of fur along the spine include:
- Thai Ridgeback
- Africanis of South Africa
- Kombai of Tamilnadu, India
What Is the Temperament of the Rhodesian Ridgeback?
The Rhodesian Ridgeback has a delightful nature, being a faithful one-man or family dog. It is very affectionate and likes to lean on you, lie at your feet or sit on your lap if permitted. It is extremely loyal to those it loves. Friendship, once given, is for life. It is highly intelligent and quick to learn, as well as placid and easygoing, putting up with endless torment from children.
Happy to participate fully in family activities, the Ridgeback is equally content to laze around all day if there is nothing better to do. Although they can withstand wide temperature variations due to their African heritage, they are sensitive and prefer to be with their human families inside. They were traditionally hunters, guardians and companions.
Are Ridgebacks aggressive?
Although not usually an aggressive dog, the Ridgeback is distinctly reserved and aloof with strangers and usually objects to people making the first advances to it. An excellent guard dog, it has a deep bark to warn intruders to keep away. This breed can become territorial and aggressive without proper handling.
A Rewarding Challenge for Experienced Dog Owners
This breed requires training and dedication and is only for the experienced dog owner. They are strong-willed and intelligent dogs, and many seem to have a penchant for mischief (though loving). They do not make a good first dog, but the same traits that make them difficult often appeal to more experienced owners.
Things to Think About Before You Get a Rhodesian Ridgeback
Are Ridgebacks hard to train?
The Ridgeback is independent and stubborn, and if you give it an order when it would prefer to be doing something else, you will probably not get instant results. Servility plays no part in the temperament of this breed, but if you want the rewarding companionship of a dog that has spirit and considers it your equal rather than your slave, you need look no further.
No single breed of dog ideally suits everyone and there are aspects of the Ridgeback character that may not appeal to some people. But if you have decided that the Rhodesian Ridgeback is the dog for you, just remember that this dog can be stubborn and needs firm but fair discipline.
What is the best training method for this breed?
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. (This does sound like a lot of human beings I know!) Francis R. Barnes, who wrote the first standard for Ridgebacks 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."
Is the Ridgeback compatible with other pets, children, or the elderly?
This breed is compatible with other domestic animals but needs training regarding livestock. The Ridgeback is also extremely tolerant of children; however, it is not so well-suited to older folk, who may have trouble handling a boisterous puppy.
Other care requirements to consider:
- This is a fast-growing dog that should not be overfed or overexercised as a puppy, as this puts too much stress on developing bones.
- Remember that this breed is part of the hound fraternity and likes to chase. Secure fencing and gates are needed.