Rhodesian Ridgeback

Africa’s big tough lion dog


Over the centuries, man has created dog breeds as helpmates and companions. Sheepmen and cattlemen developed breeds to herd and drive, farmers and businessmen founded breeds to hunt vermin and guard the hearth, shooters designed the ultimate bird dogs and spent hours by the fire debating the virtues of this or that setter or retriever.

The rougher the life, the tougher the dog that was needed. So it was in the 16th and 17th Centuries when the Dutch, Germans, and Hueguenots journeyed from Europe to tame the South African wilderness. These settlers brought Great Danes, Mastiffs, Greyhounds, Salukis, Bloodhounds, and other breeds that they eventually mixed and matched with the native Hottentot “ridged” dog to produce the courageous and versatile Rhodesian Ridgeback.

The short-coated Ridgeback is an elegant dog tough enough to hunt lions and guard settlements, endure blazing heat and freezing cold, and provide protective companionship to hunters exploring and hunting in the bush. The native Hottentot dog gave the Ridgeback his distinctive reverse-hair coat marking, a dominant characteristic that today makes him unique among dog breeds.

In 1875, the story goes, a missionary loaned his two dogs to a big game hunter in Rhodesia, (Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe), and the hunter was so pleased that he decided to breed a pack of Ridgebacks for himself. Other hunters agreed with his assessment of the breed, and the Ridgeback quickly became the dog of choice for lion hunts and started its climb to international recognition.

Ridgeback breeders formed their first club in Africa in 1922, and the breed standard they devised is substantially the same one that describes the dog today. The first American breed club was founded in 1948, and in 1955, the American Kennel Club accepted the Ridgeback as its 112th breed. In 1999, the breed ranked 56th of 147 with 2272 individual registrations and 69th in litters with 539.

A unique combination of sighthound and scenthound, the Ridgeback has keen eyesight and trailing ability that make him ideal for hunting large game such as cougars, bears, wildcats, and wild boar throughout North America. In tune with his sighthound ancestry, he is a silent tracker; when working in diverse terrain, he may be accompanied by a pack of hounds that direct the hunters to the quarry by announcing their progress with sweet music.

The standard

The Ridgeback is a large, well-muscled, athletic dog with a short reddish coat and that characteristic ridge of reverse hair along his back. Devoted and affectionate to his family, he is standoffish with strangers. In general appearance he is a stylish, balanced, and dignified dog with clean lines and a confident air.

Males are 25-27 inches tall and weigh about 85 pounds; bitches are slightly smaller at 24-26 inches tall and 70 pounds.

The Ridgeback head has a well-defined stop between muzzle and skull; high-set ears with rounded tips that fold over and lie close to the head; a long, powerful muzzle; and round, bright eyes that are fairly wide-set.The jaws are straight and strong, and the teeth have a scissors bite.

The Ridgeback body has a strong, clean neck, a deep chest, and moderately well-sprung ribs with a sturdy back, sloping shoulders, and muscular, slightly-arched loins. Powerful, heavy-boned legs; tight, arched feet; and a smooth, tapered tail complete a picture of vigor and grace.

The Ridgeback coat is short and sleek and ranges from light wheaten (tan) to red wheaten in color. Slight white markings are permitted on the chest and toes, but excessive white in these spots, on the belly, or above the toes is undesireable.

The ridge is a dominant feature of the breed and is required in show dogs. Ridgeless puppies are culled or are placed as pets.

The ridge begins immediately behind the shoulders and continues along the back to a point between the hips. The ridge hair runs counter to the rest of the coat and features two whorls directly opposite each other. Dogs with a single whorl or more than two whorls and dogs lacking a ridge are disqualified from the show ring and should not be bred.


The Ridgeback is an active, fun-loving, independent, intelligent dog suitable for like-minded people. Like most intelligent breeds, he is best trained by appealing to his desire to please and his spirit of adventure, not by repetitive, boring exercises.

The Ridgeback also needs early socialization so he is accustomed to a variety of people, situations, and other dogs. Puppy kindergarten and basic obedience classes are a must for early understanding and control of this potentially large and powerful dog. As an adult, the Ridgeback generally likes the company of other dogs in the family and tolerates household cats well, but he will protect his territory against strangers, stray dogs, and wandering cats.

Although dogs of the breed are generally good with children, active young dogs may be too boisterous for small children, and active young children could be too boisterous for young puppies. The best course of action is to supervise kids and pets to avoid accidental injuries.

A mature Ridgeback can be quite mellow; although he enjoys romps in the park, games in the back yard, and training in lure-coursing and agility, he also takes great pleasure in a nap on the couch.

Health and daily care

The Ridgeback needs little grooming as he is short-coated and clean. Daily exercise is necessary, along with a balanced, nutritious diet, and some low-key training to teach and maintain good manners.

Like most dog breeds, the Ridgeback has some genetic health problems, including hip and elbow dysplasia, cataracts, thyroid malfunctions, and dermoid sinus. Thyroid, joint dysplasia, and eye disease can be detected through screening processes, so it is important to ask a breeder for certifications that the litter parents had healthy joints and eyes and normal thyroid readings. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals conducts tests for joint disease and thyroid and the Canine Eye Registry Foundation does the eye tests.

Dermoid sinus is an opening (sinus) into the skin along the ridge on the dog’s back that can get infected. This abnormality was originally thought to be peculiar to Ridgebacks, but it has also been found in Boxers and Shih Tzus. Surgical removal is possible, but since this is a genetic abnormality, dogs with dermoid sinus should not be bred.

Average Ridgeback life span is 10-12 years, but many live to be older than 12. Fitness and long life are enhanced by vigilant owners who make sure the dogs visit a veterinary clinic for regular checkups and whenever else health questions arise.

The Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of the US has compiled a health survey of the breed that is available on the club website at http://rrcus.org/MISC/survey.html. This survey quantifies every health problem facing the breed, from allergies and auto accidents that are common to all breeds and mixes to dermoid sinus that is a Ridgeback genetic abnormality.

Finding a Ridgeback puppy

With fewer than 550 litters spread throughout the US in a given year, Ridgeback puppies are not easy to find. However, their relative lack of popularity compared to Labrador Retrievers (more than 43,000 litters in 1999) makes sure that people who think they want one of these handsome, intelligent, and watchful companions will have plenty of time do their homework.

The Ridgeback is not a dog for the weak-willed or slipshod pet owner. His strength of will and body can be difficult to deal with unless an owner is committed to obedience training and providing the dog with mind and body stimulation. As with other large, protective dogs, adding a Ridgeback to the family is not to be done lightly.

The RRCUS has a wealth of information available on its website at http://rrcus.org/MISC/survey.html.

[More on finding the right dog]

Norma Bennett Woolf

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