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The Rhodesian Ridgeback

The Development of the Rhodesian Ridgeback in Southern Africa

The Rhodesian Ridgeback is the only dog officially recognised as having its origin in Southern Africa. Consequently, it is widely considered to be South Africa's National Dog and has pride of place on the Kennel Union of Southern Africa's official emblem.

See also:

~ An early description of the "Rhodesian Lion Dog"

~ Early registrations of Rhodesian Ridgebacks

In the early years, it was a common notion that Rhodesian Ridgebacks (or Lion Dogs, as they were originally called) had a good trace of lion in their backgrounds, a myth that has, fortunately, outgrown its credibility! Because Ridgebacks are excellent lion trackers, the common belief was (and still is amongst the uninformed) that they actually hunt and kill lion - an exaggeration of the hound's capabilities and strength and a personal affront to the King of Beasts! The Ridgeback's hunting skill, of course, lies in its ability to distract the lion's attention and keep it at bay until the hunter arrives to despatch the animal.Very few descriptions of Rhodesian Ridgebacks are recorded of dogs belonging to the early inhabitants of the country and the settlers that followed. Knowledge of the history of the breed is based mostly on anecdotal evidence. It is known, however, the the Ridgeback did not exist in its present form in the early days. Rather, it developed out of a group of similar dogs that performed a specific function. Some of these dogs displayed an irregular hair pattern along their backs in the shape of a ridge, which attracted much attention. Some had finer bone structure - like a greyhound, and others were more solid in shape. Some had prick ears and some had flat ears. Interestingly, it was found that the dogs showing the greatest expertise in the hunting arena were those with flat ears, so they were more often bred.

In the 1500s and 1600s, the Khoi Khoi (previously known as Hottentots) resident in the Cape owned faithful, serviceable dogs that resembled jackals but had hair growing in the opposite direction along their spines. It is thought that the Khoi Khoi, during their long migration from Southern Egypt, may have brought along with them their long-horned cattle, fat-tailed sheep, and faithful hunting dogs. Largely used for hunting and protection, these mouse-coloured dogs measured about 18 inches (approx. 43 cm) and had erect ears. Observers of the dogs during this period noticed their fearless protective instinct when threatened by lion and leopards. While out hunting, the dogs remained silent - never betraying the presence of the hunters by barking. European settlers to the Cape showed much interest in acquiring some of these dogs and tried to bribe their owners to part with them for tobacco….. no barter was apparently successful!

With the migration of tribes from their original settlements, the populations were distributed widely. Since no records can pinpoint the precise movement and development of these early Rigeback-type dogs, much is included in African legend. On the eastern coastline, the Zulus took a liking to the dogs "with snake marks on their backs" and they were highly impressed by the dogs' courage.

During the colonisation of the Cape during the 1600s and 1700s, the first planned breedings between European and African dogs started occurring. Although there are few descriptions of the progeny, it is believed that there were a good number of ridged dogs, which were commonly known as "Boerhounds". These ridged dogs were so commonplace at the time so no-one bothered to take much notice of them, let alone record their occurrence in journals. (Remember, people were not as dog conscious in those days as they are now.) With reliability and utility being the main considerations, conformation and beauty was not considered at all important and the ridge was nothing more than an oddity. By the time the Voortrekkers began to seek other territories, the "verkeerderhaar" (literal translation: incorrect hair) dogs were already loyal house companions that doubled as brave hunters and devoted bodyguards. With the establishment of long-range rifles as the weapon of choice, and the subsequent extinction of lion, cheetah and leopard, the ridged dogs found themselves staying at home acting as farm dog.

The breed started establishing itself as we know it today during the 1800s, during which time its hunting expertise and guarding capabiltities were highly prized. In 1870, a group of enthusiasts gathered together in the then Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), under the direction of Rev. Charles Helm, to formulate a set of guidelines that would direct the type towards a recognised breed. Working on two ridged dogs that the Reverend had brought with him from the Cape, the dogs were tested in a hunting environment and found to be excellent for the purpose. Rhodesia, in those days, was lion country and there was no room for wimpish pets. The renowned big-game hunter, Cornelius van Rooyen, bred these two dogs to various excellent hunting dogs, and so began the deliberate breeding of ridged hunters according to type. Amongst the farming and hunting community, the dog's popularity increased very rapidly - originally being called van Rooyen's dogs, before settling with the name Lion Dogs.

The Ridgeback, singly or in a pack, will silently track the lion to its lair and only on discovery of its quarry will it give tongue; tanatlising, feinting, darting in and out, just beyond the reach of those fearful slashing claws, with the nonchalance of a matador; harassing and wearing it down until that majestic creature, bewildered by such elusive impudence and weary of trying to shake off its tenacious nuisance, presents a sitting target of injured majesty.


Mr Francis Richard Barnes

Mr Barnes and one of his dogs

By 1922, it was time for owners of the ridged dogs, under the leadership of Francis Richard Barnes, to formalise a breed standard. Using the Dalmatian breed standard as a guide, Barnes and his colleagues defined the characteristics of what we now call the Rhodesian Ridgeback. By the 1930s, the Ridgeback was widespread in Southern Africa, covering areas as far as Mozambique and Kenya. while not always used as a hunter, the Ridgeback gained popularity as a farm dog or home protector.

Since then, the hound that is both sighthound and scenthound, has found favour in most countries around the world. Their success has been seen in show rings around the world, where it is quite commonplace to see a Ridgeback winning the coveted Best in Show prize.


It was July 1954, in the Tuli Block, Bechuanaland, when "Oom Kaalkop" leaned back in his special canvas chair under a shady tree, he could vividly recall every one of the nine scenes in which his old favourite "Leeuw" had bayed lions for him. As the trail became hotter, "Leeuw" would become more cautious. Silently working his way from the leeward to ascertain the rue position, he would eventually come to a dead point, with raised paw, biding his time and giving his master ample time to come up and be ready. Calculating, cool, almost mischievously he would streak into the lair, nipping the lion into action; defiantly - and successfully - challenging it into the open to a battle of wits and endurance.

Eight times he had thus succeeded in pinning down his lion and had emerged unscathed, but he was getting on in years. The old gladiator had to depend more on experience than agility when he cornered his ninth lion on the banks of the Limpopo. An overhanging "wag-'n'bietjie" branch impeded his way as the lion struck and merciless claws pierced his chest, rupturing a lung. By the following morning, "Leeuw" was dead. His remains are buried where Mopani leaves rustle; where shy, nocturnal Bushbuck browse and the dawn is still greeted by the rolling echoes of the lion's roar.

No tombstone there. I did not want to disturb the silence that followed Oom Kaalkop's story, but had there been, by silent consent I felt the epitaph would have read "One of the noblest of his kind; unflinching companion and understanding friend."

Capt. T.C. Hawley