History of the Rhodesian Ridgeback

The dog who came out of the warmth

By Annemarie Schmidt-Pfister

The Rhodesian Ridgeback is the only dog from southern Africa. According to the provisions of F.C.I. the breed is classified into “Group 6” of running dogs. The standard of KUSA (Kennel Union South Africa) and ZKC (Zimbabwe Kennel Club) is registered under number 146 by F.C.I. 

The development of the Rhodesian Ridgeback
The wonderfully powerful and elegant Rhodesian Ridgeback of today, descends from far less handsome dogs, the Khoi San dogs (formerly Hottentots), but they had mastered living in cooperation and companionship with nature. Portuguese sailors were the first white men to land on the southern tip of Africa back in the 17th century; they reported seeing "ugly Hottentots dogs with inverted back hair", which resemble "more jackals than dogs, but are exceedingly useful and loyal, and showed a wild courage before lions."

A proven guard dog and hunting helper
Subsequently, the white settlers introduced a working dog, which was a cross of the native "Hottentotten” dogs with dogs imported by the settlers. These dogs usually carried a reverse line of fur on their backs - the "ridge" – which became the dog´s hallmark.  These so-called "Boer" dogs (“farmers' dogs”) proved themselves not only as able guardians of the farms and herds, but also as skillful hunters in the bush. Only the strongest and most capable humans and dogs were able to survive in this hot, dry climate where it is a hard, daily struggle against the wild, untamed nature.

The birth of the Rhodesian Ridgeback
In the then existing Rhodesia, the big game hunter, Mr. Cornelis van Rooyen took two of these ridge-bearing dogs from his friend, missionary Charles Helmard (who brought them from the Cape). This was the birthday of today's Rhodesian Ridgebacks – then called, "Van Rooyen Lion Dogs" and they proved to be excellent hunting dogs and became sought after by farmers and hunters alike. They were used in small packs, mostly of two to four dogs, and their job was to track down leopards and lions, but also other large animals, such as antelope and buffalo; the dog´s objective being to deflect or "hold" the animals until the hunters could arrive. Dubbed the "Lion Dogs", they had to not only be persevering, but above all, extremely quick and agile to escape a lion's paws – who was not, did not have a great life expectancy!

To this day, the Rhodesian Ridgeback has kept this cautious "on-the-go" walk, to which he often owed his life and with which has nothing to do with anxiousness.
In 1922, Francis R. Barnes founded a breeding club in Bulawayo for "Lion Dogs" or "Pronkrugs" (as the dogs were sometimes called). Following the example of the Dalmatians, he developed a standard which was internationally recognized in 1926. More and more Rhodesian Ridgebacks - as the breed had now officially become known - were registered in the breeding books of the club and spread throughout the entire South and East African area. However, not only there, the Rhodesian Ridgeback came to Europe in the forties and fifties with the returning Europeans. The dog with the strange fur on its backbone first aroused interest and found more and more followers in England, then also in Switzerland, Germany, Holland and Scandinavia.

Adaptation and essence of the Rhodesian Ridgeback
Initially, it was difficult to place puppies, however this has since changed. Today the Rhodesian Ridgeback is highly respected as both a hunting and guard dog, but above all, also as a sports partner and family companion throughout Europe, North America and Australia. Enthusiasts of the breed commonly have to wait very long to receive a puppy. Although the Ridgeback "came out of the heat", the Rhodesian Ridgeback has adapted surprisingly well to the different conditions of other climatic zones. Life during the African pioneering period was very harsh, as was the stringent breeding process to select robust dogs. Even so, this has by no means transformed the Rhodesian Ridgeback into the hard guy he may physically appear or may be portrayed by those who do not know the breed. He is neither a "slave hunter" nor the cliché of the, "White Hunter" from the old colonial era who are characteristically posing with their hunting trophies.

On the contrary, the Ridgeback is very sensitive deep inside, reacting to hard, unjust treatment with refusal; a Ridgeback needs a consistent loving hand. This sensitive dog "thinks", and can often be stubborn against nonsensical orders – blind obedience is not in his character nor is he suitable for security services! On the other hand, he loves appropriate sport challenges, e.g. touring, coursing, man-trailing or agility activities. Moreover, he has a natural protection drive, which can be counted on in any threatening situation – having the famous "drop of the lion's blood", which is said to flow in his veins. If the Rhodesian Ridgeback sees the meaning of an action that is demanded of him, he will always go through the fire for his family!