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The Rhodesian Ridgeback is dog breed developed in Southern Africa where it was used (amongst other things) to hunt lion. This is most likely why this dog is known for its bravery. Its European forebears can be traced to the early pioneers of the Cape Colony of southern Africa, who crossed their dogs with the semi-domesticated, ridged hunting dogs of the Hottentots (Khoi - khoi).

In the earlier parts of its history, the Rhodesian Ridgeback has also been known as Van Rooyen's Lion Dogs, the African Lion Hound or African Lion Dog—Simba Inja in Ndebele, Shumba Imbwa in Shona—because of their ability to distract a lion while awaiting their master to make the kill.

The original breed standard was drafted by F.R. Barnes, in Bulawayomarker,Rhodesia (today known as Zimbabwemarker), in 1922. Based on that of the Dalmatian, the standard was approved by the South African Kennel Union in 1926.


Ridgeback at 8 months.
The breed's history dates back to early in the 18th century, when the first European settlers found dogs domesticated by Khoi-khoi tribes with the hair on the spine turned forward. In the late 19th century, big game hunters needed a hunting dog that was tough, resistant to disease, and intelligent enough to avoid crocodiles and snakes, but brave and fast enough to face a lion. Also important was a tick-repellent smooth coat and tight paw pads to protect against thorns and rough terrain. Cornelius Van Rooyen of Plumtree, Rhodesia was the main person behind the development of the breed.

The history of the breed is disputed. It is commonly accepted that Van Rooyen used two ridged, rough-coated bitches from the Swellendam district brought to him by the Rev. Charles Helm in 1879. Van Rooyen crossed these bitches with members of his pack, noting that their ridged progeny excelled at lion hunting.

The breed took a further step in its formalization in 1922 just prior to the formation of the independent crown colony of Southern Rhodesia, when a group gathered at a farm in Bulawayo to set out the basic standard for ridged dogs that included the selection of the red wheaten to become the 'son of Africa'

The Breed Standard is loosely based on that of a slightly enlarged Dalmatian and was first registered by the South African Kennel Club, SAKU (now KUSA) in 1924. At that time KUSA was the only Kennel Club in the territory. Ridgebacks were first brought to the United States by Col. Morris DePass and his wife Maj. Ruth DePass who raised the breed in Kiln, Mississippi. The breed was admitted into the American Kennel Club in 1955 as a member of the Hound Group. The first ridgebacks in Britain were shown by Mrs Edward Foljambe in 1928.Times (London), 11 October 1928, p. 11; 14 August 1933, p. 16

As hunters, Ridgebacks were sent out in packs of two or more (usually twenty) to track down, then corner and wear down a lion by taunting and goading it into confusion, a tactic known as keeping the lion "at bay". The dogs, working in revolving groups, kept the lion at bay until the hunter arrived to dispatch the occupied lion with a well placed rifle shot from relatively close range. However, because of the very vicious reaction from the lion, this hunting method was a sort of suicide for the dogs and was used rarely.



Examples of Ridges.
The Rhodesian Ridgeback's distinguishing feature is the ridge of hair along its back, running in the opposite direction to the rest of its coat. It consists of a fan-like area formed by two whorls of hair (called "crowns"). and tapers from immediately behind the shoulders down to the level of the hips.

Male Ridgebacks should stand at the withers and weigh about FCI Standard); females should be tall and about in weight. Ridgebacks are typically muscular and have a light wheaten to red wheaten coat, which should be short, dense, sleek and glossy in appearance, and neither woolly nor silky. White is acceptable on the chest and toes. The presence of black guard hairs or ticking is not addressed in the AKC standard, although the elaboration of the AKC standard notes the amount of black or dark brown in the coat should not be excessive. The FCI Standard states that excessive black hairs throughout the coat are highly undesirable. Ridgebacks sometimes have a dark mask.

Example of three whorls.
Ridgebacks have a strong, smooth tail, which is usually carried in a gentle curve backwards. The eyes should be round and should reflect the dog's color—skin pigment, not coat color: dark eyes with a black nose (regardless of coat color), amber eyes with a liver nose. The liver nose is a recessive gene. It is not as common as a black nose; some breeders believe the inclusion of livernoses in a breeding program is necessary for maintaining the vibrancy of the coat.

The original standard allowed for a variety of coat colors, including brindle and sable. The modern FCI standard calls for light wheaten to red wheaten.

Other breeds with a ridge of fur along the spine include:


Rhodesian Ridgebacks are loyal and intelligent. They are, however, aloof to strangers. This is not to be confused with aggression; a Ridgeback of proper temperament will be more inclined to ignore, rather than challenge, a stranger. This breed requires positive, reward-based training, good socialization and consistency; it is often not the best choice for inexperienced dog owners. Ridgebacks are strong-willed, intelligent, and many seem to have a penchant for mischief, though lovingly. They are protective of their owners and families. If trained well, they can be excellent guard dogs.

Despite their athletic, sometimes imposing, exterior, the Ridgeback has a sensitive side. Excessively harsh training methods, that might be tolerated by a sporting or working dog, will likely backfire on a Ridgeback. The Ridgeback accepts correction as long as it is fair and justified, and as long as it comes from someone he knows and trusts. Francis R. Barnes, who wrote the first standard in 1922, acknowledged that "rough treatment ... should never be administered to these dogs, especially when they are young. They go to pieces with handling of that kind."


Health conditions known to affect this breed are hip dysplasia and dermoid sinus. The Ridgeback ranks number six in terms of most affected breeds for thyroid problems recorded by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. Average lifespan is from 10 to 11 years, though they have been known on rare occasion to live to nearly 16 years.

Dermoid sinus

Dermoid sinus is a congenital neural-tube defect that is known to affect this breed. The dermoid is often likened to a thin "spaghetti noodle" beneath the skin. Puppies should always be screened at birth by the breeder and veterinarian, and the examination repeated as the puppies grow before they go to their new homes. This is done by palpation of the subcutaneous dorsal midline from the base of the skull to the insertion of the tail. Surgical removal is an option for affected neonates, puppies and adult dogs. All affected dogs, even those surgically corrected, should be desexed and never be bred. Since surgical dermoid sinus removal can be extremely cost prohibitive, and because all unremoved dermoid sinuses will eventually abscess, and abscessed dermoid sinuses will cause the dog a painful death. However, it has been shown that supplementation of folic acid to the diet of the brood bitch before mating and during pregnancy reduces the incidence of dermoid sinus.


While deafness is not a common problem in the breed, Rhodesian Ridgebacks do suffer from a breed specific form of the disease. Dr. Mark Neff and his team of researchers at the University of California at Davis have located the mutation that causes this relatively rare, but breed-specific, form of deafness.

Degenerative myelopathy

Degenerative myelopathy (DM) is a disease of the spinal cord causing progressive paraparesis, most commonly in the German shepherd dog breed. It affects Rhodesian Ridgebacks at a rate of only 0.75%.


Hypothyroidism is a growing problem in the Rhodesian Ridgeback, and this condition causes a multitude of symptoms, including weight gain and hair loss. Treatment for hypothyroidism in dogs consists of an inexpensive once-daily oral medication. Dr. Lorna Kennedy at the University of Manchester’s Centre for Integrated Genomic Medical Research in England has found the haplotype (group of genes) which, when present, will double the chances of a Ridgeback becoming hypothyroid due to lymphocytic thyroiditis. This is important to the breed because lymphocytic thyroiditis is the overwhelming cause of hypothyroidism in Ridgebacks.


Like many other large, deep-chested breeds, Ridgebacks are prone to bloat. This is a potentially fatal condition that requires immediate treatment.


RRCUS H&G - The Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of the United States maintains a web site devoted to the breed's health issues that also gathers ongoing research for their Health & Genetics Committee. This group recommends that breeders perform at least four health screenings: hips, elbows, thyroid and eyes, with cardiac and hearing tests optional.

CRRHS - It is also recommend that all Ridgeback owners enter their dogs' information in the Comprehensive Rhodesian Ridgeback Health Survey.

Ridge genetics

The genotype responsible for the ridge was recently found by a consortium of researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (Nicolette Salmon Hillbertz, Göran Andersson, et al.), Uppsala University (Leif Andersson, Mats Nilsson, et al.) and the Broad Institute (Kerstin Lindblad-Toh, et al.).Salmon Hillbertz NH, Isaksson M, Karlsson EK, Hellmén E, Pielberg GR, Savolainen P, Wade CM, von Euler H, Gustafson U, Hedhammar A, Nilsson M, Lindblad-Toh K, Andersson L, Andersson G.

Duplication of FGF3, FGF4, FGF19 and ORAOV1 causes hair ridge and predisposition to dermoid sinus in Ridgeback dogs.

Nat Genet. 2007 Nov;39(11):1318-20. Epub September 30, 2007.

The only disqualification in the AKC standard for this breed is "ridgelessness". This term refers to the purebred offspring of heterozygous parental animals which do not inherit a copy of the ridge mutation from either parent and are, in effect, normal dogs which do not have a ridged back. The most current research suggests that the ridge mutation is autosomal dominant with complete penetrance. However, while the few studies which have analyzed the issue do not agree on the incidence of ridgelessness within the breed, they all show a ridgeless rate which is significantly lower than 25%, which cannot be explained using the Punnett square model for single gene/two allele inheritance.

One possible reason for these studies to deviate from the expected 25% incidence of ridgelessness is inclusion of parents who were not heterozygous (possessing a copy of both the ridgeless and ridged allele) in the study. The inclusion of homozygotes (possessing two copies of the ridged alleles) would make the observed incidence be less than 25% when averaged across the population in the study. Since a molecular genetic test for the ridge gene does not exist, heterozygotes are detected by mating the animal in question to either known heterozygotes or known homozygous recessives (other methods exist such as mating to offspring, but result in inbred offspring) and a heterozygote is detected when a ridgeless pup is born. Note that 1) many matings are required to have a high probability of detecting a homozygous dominant (once a ridgeless pup is produced, the animal in question is assumed to be homozygous without question), and 2) more than one sire can produce the pups in one litter. The latter fact can cast doubt on the calling of male heterozygotes by this method and could possibly lead to the results shown in studies testing the mode of inheritance of ridgelessness.

Traditionally, many ridgeback puppies were culled at birth for numerous reasons, including ridgelessness. Contemporary breeders are increasingly opting for surgical sterilization of these offspring to ensure they will not be bred but can live into maturity as non-showing, non-breeding pets. Some breed parent clubs and canine registries have even made the culling of ridgeless whelps a requirement. It was pointed out on the BBC One investigative documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed that The Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of Great Britain's "code of ethics", which is ratified annually by the Kennel Club states that "Ridgeless puppies shall be culled", and that "mismarked" puppies will only ever be sold on condition that they are never shown, and are neutered . The Ridgeback Club defended itself pointing to the statement that follows, "if a breeder finds this morally impossible [to kill the puppy] the puppy shall be homed..." as indication that culling is not mandatory, but preferred.. It was only after the publicity surrounding the promotion of culling that they reversed their code of ethics to say "no healthy puppy will be culled."

Classification conundrum

The historic and modern hunting uses of Rhodesian Ridgebacks have included everything from upland game birds to larger 'dangerous game'. While the hunting versatility of the breed has served it well in the field, it has caused much confusion and contention among Ridgeback fanciers about what these dogs are, and are not, as hunting companions. Throughout its history, the Rhodesian Ridgeback has been a breed of dog which has somewhat defied the strict interpretation of most conventional group classification paradigms.

A Ridgeback on trail.

Classification history

In 1922 Bulawayo, Rhodesia, Francis Barnes standardized the breed using the existing Dalmatian standard as a model - there was no mention of a preferred group placement. Although no parent club was 'officially' recognized at the time, in September 1924 the South African Kennel Union or SAKU (now the Kennel Union of South Africa or KUSA began taking "Lion Dog" registrations. In February 1926, SAKU (KUSA) officially recognized the Rhodesian Parent Club. At the behest of Barnes, SAKU also made two changes at this time:

  • The Union's official name for the breed was changed from 'Rhodesian Lion Dog' to 'Rhodesian Ridgeback'.
  • The breed was placed in the Union's 'Gundog' group.

On this second point Barnes was emphatic, stating "I am breeding a gundog." The Rhodesian Ridgeback remained classified as a Gundog for over 20 years thence.

Although the Rhodesian Ridgeback's bird hunting prowess has been well known throughout the breed's history (the original description from the South African parent club belabors this point in fact), it is important to note that the "Gundog" classification made in 1920's Rhodesia and South Africa was not specifically about bird hunting. To understand this it is necessary to understand the Union's classification system at that time. The two likely categories Barnes could have chosen from within the SAKU classification system at that time were, "Sporting" and "Gundog". In the "Sporting" group were the Sighthounds and Scenthounds. In the "Gundog" group were the Birddogs. This raises the question why Barnes rejected the group containing the Sighthounds and Scenthounds, and successfully lobbied in favor of the group containing the Birddogs. Barnes' reasoning becomes clear with an understanding of the distinction between the two groups. The Union's "Sporting" dogs were those which would find game above ground, and were then expected to dispatch the game without assistance. The Union's "Gundogs" were those which would find game above ground, and the human hunter was then expected to dispatch the game by means of a firearm. Within this context, the Rhodesian Ridgeback which was clearly expected to hold lion at bay for an armed hunter, not to attempt to dispatch a lion unassisted by the gun, placement in the Union’s Gundog group becomes the logical choice within that system as it existed at that time.

Over time the culturally perceived meanings of the group labels had changed to those closer to their modern meanings, and the Union eventually became a federated member of the FCI, and therefore adopted its group categorization system. By 1940, Barnes had resigned from the Rhodesian Parent Club and prompted by the lobbying of a newer generation of leadership within the Rhodesian Parent Club, in the 1950s, the breed's group classification was changed from “Gundog” to "Hound".

Classification theories

Today, there are at least five competing theories concerning proper group placement for the Rhodesian Ridgeback.

1) Scenthound- This theory arises from the fact that the southern African landscape in general, and the Zimbabwean landscape specifically, is an extremely varied and diverse terrain, where a true sighthound would be severely handicapped in its finding ability in the game producing cover of the bushveldt, thornveldt, and kopjes. Proponents of the scenthound classification also observe that the Ridgeback bears very little resemblance to the decidedly northern African desert breed sighthounds, in either form or function. And while proponents of this theory freely admit that Ridgebacks are undoubtedly athletic 'running' dogs, they draw the distinction that Ridgebacks do not pursue game by sheer speed, which is typical of the true sighthounds associated with the northern half of the continent.

2) Sighthound- This theory is based on the fact that some of the foundation stock used by Cornelius Van Rooyen during the creation of the breed was Sighthound stock. Support for this theory has grown in areas (most notably in the United States) where Ridgebacks have been allowed to compete with sighthounds in lure-coursing field trials. The theory's detractors contend that success in lure coursing trials does not in and of itself make a dog a true sighthound, and further bolster their contention by pointing out that Ridgebacks are very poor performers when allowed to run in unofficial open field courses where they typically cannot keep up with the true sighthounds. Even so, no one can argue that Ridgebacks have not been successful at lure coursing events. In fact Ridgebacks have been very competitive in almost every lure coursing venue in which they have been allowed to compete. Proponents of this theory will often further defend it with a (hotly debated) claim that while Ridgebacks are versatile and use all their senses, their first and strongest inclination is to find game by sight - which itself is considered normal for dogs of any type, when the game is actually in sight.

3) U.K.C. Cur Dog- This theory is based on the United Kennel Club's (the leading 'working dog' registry in the U.S.) classification system which, within the scenthounds, includes a sub-group known as "Cur Dogs". Contrary to the traditional/historical meaning of the term "Cur", these dogs are neither mongrels, nor dogs of dubious breeding or value. Quite the contrary, the UKC Cur-Dogs are pure-bred, versatile hunting and livestock dogs. These pure breeds were typically developed by pioneering peoples who needed a dog which was highly protective of the family and farm, as well as a capable stock driver. Most importantly the dog was required to pursue various species of game both small and large game alike, in a manner inconsistent with the rest of the Hounds (sight or scent). The UKC Cur Dog does so using all of its senses - hearing, sight, and scent as the situation demands. This classification theory is consistent with old breed descriptions which are somewhat contrary to the more classical sighthound/scenthound types, like the one offered in an advertisement run by the Rhodesian Parent Club in a show catalogue in 1926, "... Rhodesian Ridgeback (Lion Dogs) are unsurpassed for hunting and veld (sic) work. Ever faithful and loyal to their owners, highly intelligent and reliable guards."

4) Wagon Dog/Wagon Hound- This theory was forwarded at the 2008 Rhodesian Ridgeback World Congress, and contends that an honest evaluation of the breed's functional history indicates that during its formative development and early use as a breed, the Ridgeback was much more a "Hunter's/Farmer's Ox-Wagon Dog" than it was a "Lion Dog". This theory aligns itself with the current FCI classification of the breed, Group 6.3 (a special type of scenthound). However, the important distinction in this theory is not that the FCI classification of "scenthound" is accurate, but rather, that placing the Dalmatian and the Rhodesian Ridgeback (the only breeds currently in FCI group 6.3), breeds which have historically served as versatile hunting/wagon dogs, should indeed be classified as two examples of the same type of dog, but further asserts that such dogs’ classification makes more sense as a discreet group. This classification theory is generally supported by the historical accounts which mirror the one offered by Phyllis Archdale who went to Rhodesia in 1919 and bred Ridgebacks there in the 1920s, "Old timers told me that in early days most Dutch transport riders had a Ridgehound as guard to their wagons. They were used to bail up lion and wild pig. Mine did both..."

5) Ridged Primitive- There is also a group of Ridgeback fanciers which forward the theory that Rhodesian Ridgebacks should be thought of in terms of the FCI's group 5.8. FCI group 5 is the Spitz's and 'related primitives'. FCI group 5.8 specifically is "Primitive type Hunting Dogs with a ridge on the back". The theory's detractors note that the Rhodesian Ridgeback was not only developed in the late 1800s and standardized in the early 1900s, but developed specifically to "hunt to the gun" and as such is in fact a very modern creation, and anything but "primitive". But supporters of the theory contend that enough of the foundational stock is ancient, including the Greyhound and the Khoisan Dog (from which the ridged back is derived), that even though it was developed relatively recently and for use with modern firearms, the breed can still be considered to be of a "primitive type".

Current registry classifications

Presently, the breed is categorized as a "hound" by every major registry throughout the world. For example, the British Kennel Club and the Canadian Kennel club both categorize the Rhodesian Ridgeback as a Hound, without any further specification. Both of the major registries in the United States, the AKC and the UKC, currently further distinguish the breed as a Sighthound. The FCI, the largest international canine governing body, which looks to the parent club in the country of origin (the Parent Club in Zimbabwe) for the breed standard and group classification, currently further distinguishes the Rhodesian Ridgeback as a Scenthound.


  1. The Rhodesian Ridgeback Today, Howell Book House, p10-14 ISBN 1-58245-039-0
  2. The Rhodesian Ridgeback Today, Howell Book House,p10-14, ISBN 1-58245-039-0
  3. The Rhodesian Ridgeback Today, Howell Book House,p10-14 ISBN 1-58245-039-0
  4. American Kennel Club - Rhodesian Ridgeback
  5. OFA: Thyroid Statistics
  7. Sue Fox, 'Rhodesian Ridgebacks: A Complete Pet Owner's Manual' (2003), p 86.
  12. RESPONSE TO BBC PROGRAMME “PEDIGREE DOGS EXPOSED” The Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of Great Britain
  13. General Code of Ethics The Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of Great Britain

See also

External links

National Parent Clubs

Preservation Groups

Working Ridgeback Clubs

Ridgeback Health Information

Ridgeback Pedigree Information Databases

Ridgeback Rescue Groups

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