Developed as a service dog by European colonists in Africa, the Rhodesian Ridgeback is a striking creature, with the characteristic ridge along its back distinguishing it from other breeds. The ridge is formed by a line of hair growing back towards the dog’s head, with whorls forming at the end, and is a feature inherited from native Hottentot dogs of the South African veldt. Also known as the African Lion Dog, this breed is famously resilient and brave, having been bred to withstand lack of food and water while hunting ‘big game’ in the harshest of environments.
Ridgebacks are devoted and loyal to their masters, and with adequate exercise and steady, firm training can make excellent family pets. Due to their strength and size, they may not be ideal for families with small children, and without experience and confidence, some owners may find the breed stubborn and wilful. Socialisation is important from a young age, as the Rhodesian Ridgeback tends to be suspicious of strangers. They are likely to ignore people they do not trust, rather than react aggressively towards them, but aggression can be an issue if they feel threatened.
The Ridgeback is a tough dog, with few significant breed-specific health problems. Despite their large size, most healthy Ridgebacks will have a life expectancy of 11–12 years.
About & History
It is generally agreed that the Rhodesian Ridgeback arose from the crossing of European colonists’ dogs with the semi-wild ‘Khoikhoi’ owned by the native South Africans from the 17th century. It is from the Khoikhoi that the dog’s famed ridge is inherited. The Boers brought a great variety of breeds from Europe, including Mastiffs, sighthounds, terriers, and Bloodhounds. However, many of these breeds struggled with the heat and scarcity of water in the African environment, and so the requirement for crossbreeding with a native dog became evident.
As inward migration by Europeans was limited for most of the 18th century, the Ridgeback was allowed to develop without dilution by new arrivals. Continued selective breeding resulted in a dog which was more tame and loyal than the original native stock, but which retained its hunting instincts and natural ferocity. The breed was used largely as a hunting companion, being used to flush birds, tackle wounded prey, and even to corner ‘big game’.
Although the breed originated in South Africa, it was in modern-day Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) where large-scale selective breeding of the Ridgeback was practiced in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Rev. Charles Helm is credited with bringing the first breeding stock of two bitches to Rhodesia in 1875. These two progenitors gave rise to a line which were further crossed with Collies, Pointers, and Great Danes to produce the modern Rhodesian Ridgeback which we know today.
The breed was first officially recognised by the Kennel Club in 1954, and one year later by the American Kennel Club. Owing to its unique physical appearance, as well as its fine behavioural qualities, the Ridgeback has rapidly gained popularity over the ensuing decades, being now the 41st most-popular breed in the USA.
The Rhodesian Ridgeback is wheaten in colour, with light to red shades commonly found. A dark mask is often present around the face, and small patches of white are permissible on the paws and chest. The ridge is the foremost physical characteristic of the breed, formed by forward-pointing hair running in a line up to 5 cm wide from just behind the shoulders to the hip prominences. Two whorls or ‘crowns’ should be present at the forward end of the ridge, and should not extend more than one-third the total ridge length.
Ridgebacks have a calm, dignified facial expression when relaxed, with multiple frown- or worry-lines appearing around the eyes and forehead when aroused. The crown of the head is broad, level, and well-muscled, leading to a moderately pronounced ‘stop’ between the eyes. The ears are broad-based, triangular in shape, and tend to be carried close to the head. The muzzle is long, broad, and clearly powerful, and the breed’s lips should give no sign of a droop. The nose is usually black, but other colours such as brown are sometimes seen.
The Rhodesian Ridgeback’s body is a study in strength with powerful muscling evident in the shoulders, back, and rump. The neck and back are broad and long, and the tail is carried level, although with a slight upward curl in the lower half. The limbs are well-boned, and the toes on the compact paws are arched. While deep-chested, the Ridgeback should not have a ‘barrel’ chest.
Males should weigh around 36 kg (79 lb), and stand 63–69 cm (25–27 inches) at the withers. Females are usually slightly less imposing, at 61–66 cm (24–26 inches), and weighing around 32 kg (71 lb).
Character & Temperament
The Rhodesian Ridgeback tends to be reserved, and is often described as ‘aloof’. This is a very intelligent breed which benefits from stimulation in the form of exercise and training. With intelligence comes stubbornness, and it is important that owners are firm, and set clear expectations in terms of behaviour. Ridgeback puppies are delightfully boisterous and endearingly clumsy, but they generally mature into quiet adults. While they are tremendously loyal and affectionate, some would not recommend them for small children, due to their sheer size and power, particularly in their young and exuberant phase.
As might be expected from a dog renowned as a hunter of lions, the Ridgeback is an exceptionally courageous dog. Their instinctive loyalty to family, coupled with their suspicion of strangers, mean that most Ridgebacks are great guard dogs. This instinct must be tempered to some degree in young Ridgebacks by socialising them intensively with unfamiliar people, in order to prevent any problems with aggressive behaviour.
As hunting dogs, they should not be left unsupervised with small pets, and should be kept in a securely enclosed space when unattended outdoors. Male Rhodesian Ridgebacks may have a tendency to act aggressively towards other dogs in order to establish dominance.
As stated above, the Rhodesian Ridgeback is an intelligent breed. They do have the potential to be stubborn, which can be an issue in training, particularly if training is left until they are older. However, if started at a young age, the clever Ridgeback is capable of being trained to a very high level, and will enjoy learning complex behaviours and tricks. Because of their high intelligence and propensity to stubbornness, they will pick up on any sign of hesitation or inconsistency from the trainer, and so a firm and consistent approach to training is necessary. They respond well to rewards – either verbal or in the form of treats, but can be sensitive to reprimand, and so should be treated fairly at all times.
While they will usually walk well on a lead, their strong prey drive may take over if allowed off-lead, and a Ridgeback will often be heedless of an owner’s attempts to recall them should an interesting scent catch their nose. They are not a vocal breed, and nuisance barking is not generally a problem, but if left unattended or under-stimulated, destructive behaviour may become an issue.
Despite their resilience, and having been bred as ferocious hunters, Ridgebacks, like any other breed, are prone to a number of genetic and developmental problems:
- Atopic Dermatitis – Allergic skin disease caused by inhaled allergens such as moulds, pollens, and mites is an extremely common complaint in many breeds including the Ridgeback. Skin irritation and infection can become severe, and steps should be taken to identify and eliminate allergic stimuli if possible.
- Hip Dysplasia – Normal hip development requires the coordinated growth of multiple growth plates, and it is not uncommon for this process to go awry. Lameness and pain may manifest in puppies from 5–6 months of age, and depending on severity, may require on-going treatment. This is largely an inherited disorder, and so affected animals should not be used for breeding.
- Osteochondritis Dissecans – Weakening and fragmenting of joint cartilage, most commonly seen in young dogs, and affecting the shoulder, knee, or hock joints.
- Entropion – Abnormal eyelid conformation, with inwardly scrolled hairs and eyelashes rubbing on the surface of the eye and causing pain and inflammation. Usually require surgery for correction.
- Persistent Pupillary Membrane – Failure of the eye’s iris to develop normally, with retained tissue in the anterior chamber of the eye affecting vision.
- Cataracts – Milky or crystalline opacities in the dark lens of the eye, preventing normal vision. Generally a problem of older dogs, and commonly seen as a consequence of diabetes.
- Generalised Progressive Retinal Atrophy – Thinning and degeneration of the sensory tissues in the eye’s retina. This progressive problem can affect young animals, and results in profound loss of vision.
- Hypothyroidism – Loss of normal thyroid function due to an aberrant immune process can result in weight gain, lethargy, hair loss, and reproductive issues. Administration of oral thyroid hormone usually gives excellent results.
- Cerebellar Cortical Abiotrophy – Condition involving loss of neurons in the cerebellum (part of the hindbrain). Results in incoordination and difficulties in walking. Signs generally become obvious within the first 6 months of life. The condition can be self-limiting or progressive.
- Cervical Vertebral Malformation – Compression of the spinal cord or instability of the vertebrae in the neck, resulting in incoordination and limb weakness.
- Dermoid Sinus – This is an unusual condition, almost unique to Ridgebacks. It results from a failure of the embryonic spinal cord to fully separate from the skin, and presents as one or more lumps in the skin along the dog’s ridge. These lumps may be painful, or be associated with neurological signs. Treatment is by surgical removal. Affected animals should not be bred.
- Haemolytic Anaemia – An autoimmune process, in which the immune system attacks the body’s red blood cells. Platelets (a type of white blood cell) may also be attacked in some cases. The condition results in mild to severe anaemia (lack of red blood cells), causing weakness, shortness of breath, and collapse.
- Lupoid Onychodystrophy – Autoimmune destruction of the nail beds, causing the growth of weak, brittle, and deformed nails, which may cause pain.
- Haemangiosarcoma – A cancer of blood vessels, most often arising in the spleen, heart, or skin. Results in loss of large volumes of blood, usually manifesting as collapse.
- von Willebrand’s Disease – This condition results in excess bleeding after minor injuries, and is similar to haemophilia. In this condition however, the bleeding disorder is a result of subnormal function of platelets, which are blood cells responsible for clot formation, rather than deficiencies in blood proteins, as in haemophiliacs.
Exercise and Activity Levels
Although adult Rhodesian Ridgebacks can be very laid-back and reserved, this is a naturally athletic breed, and they certainly benefit if given plenty of exercise. They are ideal companions for hiking or walking, and will enjoy several hours of moderately vigorous exercise each day. However, they can also adapt to a more sedentary lifestyle if necessary, so long as they get at least half an hour of lead walking along with ‘play time’ in a garden or yard. Without sufficient exercise, Ridgebacks can be prone to becoming overweight.
The breed is very low-maintenance in terms of grooming requirements. They can be prone to moderately heavy shedding with indoor living, but generally a quick brushing will easily lift any loose hair. Wiping the coat with a damp cloth after brushing should give the hair a lustrous finish. Bathing is infrequently required, and a mild dog shampoo should be used when it is needed.
Ridgebacks have very strong nails, which are often not adequately worn down by exercise, and so clipping these is important. This should be begun when the dog is young, and care should be taken not to catch the ‘quick’. Cutting the nails too short in puppies results in adults that are reluctant, or even panicked, by the process of getting their nails trimmed.
Teeth-brushing is another good routine to introduce while the dog is young. Daily cleaning with a dog-specific toothpaste prevents build-up of plaque and tartar, preventing dental disease later in life. Again, this is something which is easily introduced to most pups, but can be difficult to begin in adulthood.
Famous Rhodesian Ridgebacks
The Rhodesian Ridgeback, with its striking and dignified appearance, has been a favourite companion of many celebrities, including:
- Grace Kelly & Prince Rainier
- Errol Flynn
- Patrick Swayze
- Anthony Kiedis
- Carl Lewis
The Ridgeback is not regularly crossed with many other breeds, but several mixes are relatively commonly seen:
- Rhodesian Bernard – Cross between a Rhodesian Ridgeback and a St. Bernard
- Rhodesian Boxer – Cross between a Rhodesian Ridgeback and a Boxer
- Rhodesian Labrador – Cross between a Rhodesian Ridgeback and a Boxer