The Rhodesian Ridgeback is one of only two registered breeds indigenous to Southern Africa. Its ancestors can be traced to the Cape in South Africa where they were bred with the early pioneer’s dogs and the semi-domesticated dog of the indigenous people. The first white men to see ridged dogs were the Portugese, who landed at what is today, Cape Town, South Africa in 1487. The Boers later called the indigenous people Hottentots, although they referred to themselves as “Khoi-Khoi”. The Boers used many of the breeds they brought with them to crossbreed with the Khoi dogs, or Hottentots Hunting Dogs, as they required a dog resistant to local diseases and more suitable to frontier life.
In 1879 Reverend Charles Daniel Helm brought two dogs from Kimberley to his mission near, what is Bulawayo in the south-west of Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe. These two bitches are regarded as the origin of what is known today as the Rhodesian Ridgeback, although there is no proof that they did indeed possess a ridge. A hunter, by the name of Cornelius van Rooyen, operated mainly in Matebeleland, mated these two rough coated, grey-black dogs to his pack and the famous ridge emerged.
Cornelius van Rooyen crossed the following breeds with the Hottentot Hunting Dog. The Bloodhound/Pointer (having a good nose), the Greyhound (having speed), the Bulldog/Bullterrier (having courage and tenacity), the Airdale and Irish Terrier (having dash and spirit) and certainly the elegant Deer-/staghound (having stamina). The dog’s usefulness far outweighed its looks or adherence to any particular type, but it was noticed that the ridge of the Hottentot dog manifested itself in many of the offspring of matings between local and European dogs. As a dominant gene, it recurred generation by generation. The liver or brown nose in the modern Rhodesian Ridgeback is related to the nose of a similar colour in the Pointers that were used and the problem of a wavy or kinky tail to the Bulldog ancestry.
These lionhounds would hunt ordinary game silently, picking up the scent and following it until the quarry came into sight. When the hunter drew near the stalk would begin. Hunting mainly in groups of two or three, it was a case of attack, feint, dodge, worry, snap and retreat, but above all confine the beast, allowing the hunter to get into position for a good, clean shot. Only the very fittest and most skilful lived to pass on their qualities to the next generation.
The most common misconception about Rhodesian Ridgebacks is that they actually kill lions. Nothing could be further from the truth. No dog, no matter how courageous, can kill a lion.
A distict “type” of South African frontier dog began to become more common. Individuals varied greatly but they were generally medium-sized animals of the hound type, tan or brindled in colour, fast and sturdy.
The standard was based heavily on the Dalmatian Standard which was presented to the Kennel Union of Southern Africa (KUSA) in 1922 and after revision, was accepted in 1926. Francis Barnes from the Eskdale Kennel is credited with being the principal creator of the Breed Standard.
In 1924, the first two Rhodesian Ridgebacks were registered with the Kennel Union of Southern Africa (KUSA). Mr L. Herring of Grootedam, South Africa, owned these two dogs. In the same year several kennel names were established by the breeders around Bulawayo, Umvukwe, Marandellas, Eskdale, Drumbuck and Avondale.
By the end of 1928, there were 13 registered kennel names. The kennels that contributed the most registered dogs to the foundation of the Rhodesian Ridgeback were Eskdale, Viking, Drumbuck, Avondale and Lion’s Den. All these names will be found behind the dogs of today.
During World War II, the Rhodesian Ridgeback declined in popularity and almost ceased to exist. Around 1960, Mrs Mylda Arsenis, with the help of Mrs Irene Kingcombe set upon the task of reviving the breed in Southern Africa.
The Rhodesian Ridgeback is steadily increasing in popularity, in Great Britain, the USA, Spain and other continental countries as well as in Australia and New Zealand. Today there are few lion left to hunt and modern aids make the job much easier. However, far from being redundant, the Ridgeback has once again exhibited its adaptability and versatility by becoming sought-after companion/house dogs, family pets and watchdogs… world-wide. Its character and temperament are dignified, intelligent with an independent mind – they can evaluate a situation and act accordingly without instructions. Though naturally obedient and easily trained, you will never get that instant submission you see in Working Breeds. Ridgebacks are partners… not servants!! A sense of humour, aloof and stand-offish with strangers, but showing no aggression or shyness – unfamiliar visitors are tolerated at best after proper introduction. A Ridgeback is a creature of grace and dignity, loyal to the end.