Rhodesian Ridgebacks: History, Behavior, and Defining Characteristics

The following is an excerpt from "The Complete Guide to Rhodesian Ridgebacks" by Tarah Schwartz. For more information visit the books Amazon Page.

Author Credit: Tarah Schwartz

What Is a Rhodesian Ridgeback?

The Rhodesian Ridgeback is an athletic, dignified hound whose signature characteristic is a ridge of backward-facing hair along the spine. The breed was originally developed in Africa for the purpose of tracking and baying lions. Although they are no longer used to hunt lions, they are competitive participants in a variety of modern dog sports. They also make great companions for active families, provided they are willing to deal with the Ridgeback’s independent nature and high prey drive.

Rhodesian ridgeback sitting
Photo Courtesy – Charlene Walsh

Rhodesian Ridgebacks are known for their calm and gentle demeanor, and many get along well with children and other pets. However, they are large, energetic dogs and must be monitored closely to ensure they don’t play too roughly with smaller playmates. They are brave and loyal dogs who may become shy or aggressive around strangers if not socialized properly. Rhodesian Ridgebacks are intelligent and capable of learning quickly, but their independence may present a challenge during training. Firm and consistent training methods work best with this breed. They are incredibly athletic dogs who require plenty of daily exercise. Without enough exercise, they may become high-strung or destructive.

The coat of the Rhodesian Ridgeback is short, smooth, and easy to care for. Coat colors may range from light wheaten to deeper browns and shades of red. Small patches of white may be found on the dog’s chest or toes. There is a characteristic symmetrical stripe of hairs growing in the opposite direction along the dog’s back. The coat requires relatively little grooming, but Rhodesian Ridgebacks are considered to be average shedders.

Rhodesian Ridgebacks’ natural athleticism make them a popular choice for dog sport competitors. In addition to conformation and obedience, Ridgebacks excel in agility, dock diving, tracking, and lure coursing. The breed can be stubborn, but with firm and consistent training, they can be taught any number of commands. They also make excellent jogging companions and will gladly accompany their families on camping and hiking trips of any length.

Rhodesian Ridgebacks are considered to be relatively healthy dogs, but there are a few genetic issues that affect the breed. Hip and elbow dysplasia are common afflictions, but can be prevented with responsible testing and breeding practices. Thyroid disease affects nearly one in four Ridgebacks. Cataracts and heart disease are also common in the breed. As large, deep-chested dogs, they are prone to bloat, which is when a dog’s stomach fills with gas, and can be fatal if not treated immediately. Overall, the breed is quite healthy and the average lifespan is around 10 to 12 years.

History of the Rhodesian Ridgeback

The Rhodesian Ridgeback was originally developed in southern Africa. Native to Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe, the breed was created by crossing the ridgebacked dogs kept by local tribes with the dogs kept by Boer settlers in the 16th and 17th centuries. European settlers quickly recognized the dog’s innate talent for hunting and the breed became a popular choice for hunters in Matabeleland and Mashonaland. Hunters then began adding European breeds such as Pointers, Lurchers, Terriers, and Bulldogs to the mix in an attempt to create the perfect hunting dog. The Great Dane was even added into the bloodline in some areas, contributing size and a more muscular build. It is suspected that other Mastiff-type breeds were also added, but there is no official record of it.

Rhodesian ridgeback lion dog
Photo Courtesy – Liesl Kruger

The exact shape and size of the dogs varied by region, so a breed standard was proposed in 1925 by Francis Richard Barnes. Barnes was a well-known Ridgeback breeder of the time, who used the Dalmatian’s breed standard as a starting point. The Rhodesian Lion Dog, as Barnes referred to the breed, was accepted by the South African Kennel Union in 1927, at which point the name was changed to Rhodesian Ridgeback. As the breed became more consistent and more popular with lion hunters, interest abroad began to grow. Rhodesian Ridgebacks were first imported into the United States in 1950 by William H. O’Brien and his wife. Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien imported six Rhodesian Ridgebacks with the intention of getting the breed recognized by the American Kennel Club. The breed and its official standard were eventually accepted by the AKC in 1955. In the United Kingdom, the Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of Great Britain was founded in 1952 in order to promote the breed among English dog fanciers.

Today, the breed has grown in popularity and the AKC currently ranks it in popularity as number 41 out of 193 recognized breeds. Although no longer used for hunting lions, Rhodesian Ridgebacks are often still used to hunt smaller game. They are successful competitors in lure coursing, conformation, and tracking competitions. Rhodesian Ridgebacks are also popular as family companions and exercise partners.

Physical Characteristics

Rhodesian Ridgebacks are large dogs that are slightly longer than they are tall, but with a balanced appearance. Males typically measure 25 to 27 inches in height at the shoulder and females measure 24 to 26 inches. The average weight is 70 to 85 pounds. The overall appearance of the dog should be that of a strong and muscular hound. They are active, athletic dogs and their build should reflect this.

Rhodesian ridgeback hound
Photo Courtesy – Rebecca Weddell

The head of the Rhodesian Ridgeback is broad, with a long and powerful muzzle. Eyes should be round, bright, and of a color that complements the coat of the dog. Dogs with black noses should have darker eyes, while dogs with liver or brown noses are permitted to have amber-colored eyes. Darker coloring on the face and muzzle is acceptable within the guidelines of the breed standard. The nose should be black, brown, or liver in color. The Rhodesian Ridgeback’s neck should appear fairly long and balanced. The chest should be deep, but not too wide or rounded. The shoulders are muscular, and the forelegs are straight and heavy in bone. The dog’s feet are compact and rounded. Dewclaws may be present, or they may be removed. The Ridgeback’s hindquarters are strong, muscular, and straight when viewed from behind.

The Rhodesian Ridgeback’s coat should be short, dense, and glossy. The color may vary from a light shade of wheaten to a more reddish wheaten color. A small amount of white is allowed on the toes and chest, but excessive white, or white on any other part of the body, is undesirable. The characteristic feature of the Rhodesian Ridgeback is the ridge of hair growing in the opposite direction along the dog’s spine. The ridge should be well-defined and symmetrical. Ideally, it should start just behind the shoulders and continue to the hips. The ridge should also contain two crowns, or whorls, directly opposite each other. In the show ring, a dog with only one crown, or more than two, will be seriously faulted. A dog with no ridge at all will be disqualified.

The gait of the Rhodesian Ridgeback should appear balanced and free, reflecting the breed’s athleticism and endurance. The dog’s stride should be long and efficient. Overall, the dog’s movement should display an ideal balance between power and elegance.

Breed Behavioral Characteristics

Rhodesian ridgeback hunting dog
Photo Courtesy – Stephanie Egger

Despite their history as fierce hunters, Rhodesian Ridgebacks are calm and gentle when at home with family. They are typically good-natured, obedient dogs who do well with children. Some Ridgebacks, especially young puppies, may play roughly and accidentally knock over small children or other pets, but it is purely by accident rather than malice. They are incredibly loyal dogs and can be somewhat reserved around strangers, so proper socialization is a necessity. In training, they are intelligent and learn quickly, but they can easily sense when they have the upper hand. They require confident, consistent trainers who regularly remind the dog of his place in the pack. Without firm leadership, Ridgebacks can become unmanageable and destructive. They are a high-energy breed who need regular physical and mental stimulation. They can be somewhat stubborn, especially if they believe that they are the leaders of the pack. The breed typically gets along well with animals of other species, provided they are socialized properly. Rhodesian Ridgebacks are active, athletic dogs who enjoy physical activity, especially alongside members of their family.

Is a Rhodesian Ridgeback the Right Fit for You?

Rhodesian Ridgebacks are lively, energetic dogs that require a lot of physical and mental stimulation. You need to be honest with yourself about whether or not this is the right type of dog for you. If you are a person who enjoys spending your days off relaxing at home in front of the television, you may want to rethink adopting a Ridgeback. On the other hand, if you are an active person who spends your free time hiking, running, or exploring the outdoors, your lifestyle may be more ideal for the breed. This is not to say that Ridgebacks don’t enjoy down time, as they do enjoy relaxing with their families, but they also need a significant amount of exercise. A tired dog will always be less likely to get into trouble than a dog who hasn’t received enough stimulation.

Rhodesian ridgeback grass
Photo Courtesy – Ash Watts

Rhodesian Ridgebacks are likely to find ways to entertain themselves if you don’t do it for them. If you work long hours and expect your dog to rest quietly all day while you’re away, this breed may not be right for you. If given enough physical and mental stimulation, a Ridgeback will happily rest all day until you return, but a bored Ridgeback can be quite destructive and will happily entertain herself in your absence by shredding throw pillows, getting into the trash, chewing on furniture, and generally turning your home into a disaster area. Exercising and keeping a Rhodesian Ridgeback busy can be a big time commitment, so if you don’t have a lot of spare time you may want to consider another breed or type of pet.

Size could be a consideration, depending on your home. If you live in the country with no shortage of space, you may not need to worry about what size dog you bring home. However, if you live in a tiny apartment, you may need to consider whether that environment is right for a Rhodesian Ridgeback. Ridgebacks can make excellent apartment dogs provided they get enough physical and mental exercise. However, you need to consider how easy it would be to share such a cramped space with a large dog. You’ll need to determine if you have enough room in the apartment for a crate or dog bed. If you choose to allow your dog on the furniture, consider whether there will still be enough room for you and your significant other or friends. If properly trained and exercised, it can be relatively easy to live with a large dog in a small space, but it will take time for you both to adapt to living in tight quarters and you need to seriously consider whether this is something you’re willing to do.

Rhodesian ridgeback lying
Photo Courtesy – Channing Mae Malz

You may also want to consider the Rhodesian Ridgeback’s coat type if you live in a cold climate. Ridgebacks were developed in southern Africa and are incredibly heat tolerant dogs. Their short coats are ideal for protecting them against sun but still keeping them relatively cool. In a cold climate, however, their sleek coats may not be enough to keep them warm. Many Ridgebacks do well in frigid temperatures if they are dressed in coats, sweaters, or boots, but they still may not be able to spend much time outdoors without getting cold. If you live in an area with long, harsh winters, you may want to consider a breed which is more adapted to your climate.

To read more from "The Complete Guide to Rhodesian Ridgebacks" by Tarah Schwartz, or purchase on Amazon, visit the link below:

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