A History Of The Rhodesian Ridgeback - The Pets and Love

Where they came from, what they were bred for, and how they came to be a family pet plays a big part in who the Rhodesian Ridgeback is today. So what exactly is the history of this magnificent dog?

It goes without saying that if you are looking to add a Rhodesian Ridgeback to your life, you would research the breed and research the breeder you choose to obtain a puppy from. You would want to see the mother and the father, if possible, see relevant health papers, and also the lineage all of them come from. Basically, you would be investigating family history!

But, what about the actual history of the breed itself? After all, if we can learn certain helpful and relevant facts from looking into a puppies lineage surely we can learn more from understanding where and how the breed came about? Where they came from, what they were bred for, and how they came to be a family pet plays a big part in who the Rhodesian Ridgeback is today. So what exactly is the history of this magnificent dog?

The history of the Rhodesian Ridgeback can be traced back to at least 4000 BC Egyptian tombs where pictures of their probable ancestors were found. There is, however, no real definitive timeline regarding these dogs until we reach the mid-1600s, making it difficult to put their history together completely.

Where Did It All Begin?

The first recorded evidence of a dog breed resembling the Rhodesian Ridgeback was found in the Ethiopian/Southern Sedan area. Here, an Egyptian tomb was discovered bearing ancient drawings of a dog with droopy ears and most tellingly what appears to be a ridge on its back. It is believed that this dog portrayed is the most likely ancestor to the Hottentot Dog breed which can be directly linked with the modern Rhodesian Ridgeback.

As a matter of general interest, the Egyptians must have valued their dogs and believed they were important for them to appear in tomb paintings. Egyptians at the time only included objects and paintings in their final resting places that were either valuable to them, they wished to take with them to the afterlife, or that they believed would help them to reach the afterlife.

The next recorded evidence of the Rhodesian Ridgebacks ancestors was found on a painting near Rasape in Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe. Here, depictions of what was commonly known as the Hottentot dog were found. The Hottentot was also known as the African, Bantu, Zulu, and Khoikhoi dog. Again, the paintings were related to burial rituals where the most important and prized possessions were depicted. In Zimbabwe, these would include animals such as cattle, sheep, and hunting dogs.

The Hottentot Dog And Europeans

In 1652, Europeans began to arrive in Rhodesia bringing their dogs with them. However, the breeds they brought such as Greyhounds, Bulldogs, and Deerhounds were not well suited to the African environment. They had trouble with diseases found there, the hot and cold temperatures, limited water supplies, and the rough terrain. This needed to be addressed as anyone living in Rhodesia at this time needed dogs fully capable of both hunting and guarding.

It wasn’t long before the Europeans discovered the Hottentot dog which was being used by the people of Rhodesia, the Hottentot tribe in particular, as a hunting and guard dog. This breed was ideal for the job they were doing due to their small narrow heads, jackal sized bodies, and temperament. They also had the signature marking of their descendants the ridge down the back. They were, however, in appearance, a far cry from the Rhodesian Ridgeback we know today.

The Europeans didn’t waste time and began to breed the Hottentot dog with their own European dog breeds that they had brought with them. This resulted in dogs that were far better equipped and able to cope with the harsh African environment. The resulting cross breeds, however, still were not the Rhodesian Ridgeback we recognize and love today. They were certainly getting closer though as depicted in a drawing from 1858.

Probably one of the best known early pictures of a ridged dog that had begun to resemble the Rhodesian Ridgeback this drawing showed a group of Khoisan hunters near Lake Ngami in Botswana. They were surrounding a dead Hartebeest with the dog which belonged to a well-known hunter named Baldwin. It was not Baldwin, however, that would be responsible for the establishment of the Rhodesian Ridgeback.

The Reverend Charles Daniel Helm And His Contribution To The Rhodesian Ridgeback

Born in 1844, the Reverend Charles Daniel Helm ran a mission at Hope fountain near Bulawayo, Rhodesia. Very little is known about the man himself, including whether he was a dog lover or not, but it is certain that he bought the two bitches that would become the foundation of the Rhodesian Ridgeback.

It was in 1879 that the Reverend purchased the two bitches and brought them home to his mission. They were both rough coated in appearance and of a gray-black coloration. They did not, however, according to record have ridges on their back, but nonetheless, are believed to be the founding mothers of the Rhodesian Ridgeback that we know today. Once ensconced at Hope Fountain these two bitches were bred with a pack of dogs owned by Cornelius Van Rooyen.

Cornelius Van Rooyen And The Van Rooyen Lion Dog

Cornelius Van Rooyen was a big game hunter in the 1800s who needed a dog that was large enough, brave enough, and capable of holding a lion at bay. He, as mentioned above, tried to achieve this by mating the Reverend Helm’s two bitches with his own pack of dogs.

Van Rooyen’s pack of dogs included breeds such as Greyhounds, Bulldogs, Pointers, Irish Terriers, Airedale Terriers, Collies, and Deerhounds. There is no record of which breeds Reverend Helms dogs were bred with or even if they were pure breeds. It is, after all, not inconceivable that Van Rooyen had already experimented with mixed breeding of his own dogs before the Reverends two bitches arrived.

Since the dogs which Reverend Helm purchased were not thought to have had ridges on their back, it is entirely feasible that Van Rooyen must have had Hottentot dogs in his pack, or dogs that had bred with them, though they are not mentioned. After all, the ridge so famed in this breed nowadays had to come from somewhere. It is also believed that the Rhodesian Ridgebacks kinky tail comes from the Bulldog and its liver (brown) nose from the Pointer.

The result of Van Rooyen’s breeding program, regardless of the breeds used, was extremely successful, and what was to become known as the Van Rooyen Lion Dog emerged. They were exceptionally good at chasing and harassing, not physically attacking, lions giving the hunter a chance to arrive and shoot them. They were also used to hunt monkeys, warthogs, other animals, and protect the homestead. They were both sight and scent hounds making them extremely adaptable. They did not, however, meet the breed standards that Rhodesian Ridgebacks meet today. That came later.

Sir Francis Richard Barnes And The South African Kennel Union

In 1925 Sir Francis Richard Barnes approached the South African Kennel Union to try to put in place a breed standard for the Van Rooyen Lion Dog. He did this by presenting a sample of around twenty of his own dogs from the Eskdale Kennels at a breeders symposium. The best traits of these dogs were then discussed and determined and a breed standard put in place.

By 1910, or thereabouts, the breed was no longer known as Van Rooyen’s Lion Dog but rather had become the Rhodesian Ridgeback. It was under this new name that they were registered with the South African Kennel Union although to this day you will still find the old names used. Rhodesian Ridgebacks were placed under the gun dog category which later changed to hound. The breed standard, however, has not changed and to this day remains basically the same.

The Rhodesian Ridgeback Breed Standard

Based on the standard for a Dalmation it was decided that the Rhodesian Ridgeback should be a strong and muscular well-balanced dog that was agile and active. They should be large, but not massive, and of course have the famed ridge down their back. This ridge should be clear, defined, and taper down to the haunches from behind the shoulders. Height and weight wise bitches should be 24 to 26 inches and around 70lbs. Males should be 25 to 27 inches and weigh around 80lbs.

Temperament wise, the breed standard describes the Rhodesian Ridgeback as intelligent, dignified, and aloof with strangers but never shy or aggressive. Short, but sweet, and certainly not, as Rhodesian Ridgeback owners will already know, all there is to this breeds amazing but sometimes frustrating personality.

It should be noted that what the breed standard lacks in personality description of the Rhodesian Ridgeback it makes up for in physical description. Every inch of this breeds body is discussed such as head, facial region, body, limbs, coat, height, and weight. Owners with Rhodesian Ridgebacks should, however, take the breed standards with a pinch of salt and as unimportant unless they are planning to show their dogs when the breed standards then become all important.

Introducing The Rhodesian Ridgeback To The World

The first Rhodesian Ridgeback was shown in Great Britain in 1928 by Mrs. Edward Foljambe though it is not known exactly when this breed landed on their shores. In comparison, we do know, however, that the USA was much later with Mr and Mrs William O Brien of Arizona introducing them in 1950.

Five years later, in 1955 the American Kennel Club accepted the Rhodesian Ridgeback as a member of the hound group. They fall into this group as they fit the criteria which is to be a sight hound, scent hound, or both, and to assist hunters by identifying, locating, and recovering prey. The first Rhodesian Ridgeback registered was named Tchaika Of Redhouse in the year they became members, 1955.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of the job that the Rhodesian Ridgeback did in Rhodesia they were thought of by those outside of Africa to be ferocious dogs that killed lions and that they were not suitable as pets. This stigma, sadly, is somewhat still attached to them today with many people not even recognising that this breed certainly does not, and has not, been used to actually kill lions. Over the years, however, this belief is slowly lifting and more and more families around the world are welcoming the Rhodesian Ridgeback in.

Discovery Of The Dermoid Sinus

It is virtually impossible to talk about the history of the Rhodesian Ridgeback and not talk about its one highly distinguishing feature, the ridge on its back! This is, not however, just because it distinguishes this breed, but rather because it can also be a huge problem.

There is no recorded evidence as to when it was discovered that the ridge that runs down the Rhodesian Ridgebacks spine could cause a condition now known as dermoid sinus. However, one would have to think that it could not have been before the breed standard was set down as surely it would then, for the breeds health, have been bred out.

Regardless of when dermoid sinus was discovered, it is now known that this condition can at best result in the need for treatment or surgery, and at worst result in the death of a Rhodesian Ridgeback. Luckily, however, it is a condition that is easy to spot and at an early age. Signs to look out for include an opening on the midline of the back with protruding hair, and a discharge that without treatment may become infected and lead to an abcess. If you spot either of these signs on your Rhodesian Ridgeback you should seek veterinary aid.

The Rhodesian Ridgeback Today

It goes without saying that the history of the Rhodesian Ridgeback plays a huge part in the dog that they have become today. From the ridge of fur down their back to their high predatory drive, it can all be linked back to their past and time in Africa.

The Rhodesian Ridgeback has also evolved, however, and into a much loved and a fantastic pet that is perfect for family settings. Their sense of loyalty stands out, probably unlike any other breed, and their playful nature and easy going temperament radiates. They are now, so much more than a hunting dog!

Interestingly, the Rhodesian Ridgeback is still used for hunting today as well as a number of other tasks such as showing, obedience, agility, working trials, protection work, and lure coursing. They have also been recruited into the police force and used as guide dogs for the blind.

As a hunting dog they continue to hunt large prey as well as small all over the world. This is not only due to their speed, agility, sense of smell, and sight, but also due to their stamina. It is believed that Rhodesian Ridgebacks can run for around thirty miles without pause! Their quarry includes jaguar, mountain lion, bob cat, bear, lynx, deer, and boar, as well as just about every animal and bird that Africa has to offer.

Awards, Popularity, And The Future

There is no doubting that sometime, somewhere the magnificent Rhodesian Ridgeback has won plenty of rosettes. However, they have not succeeded in eighty three years to win the most prestigious show on earth! Rather, Crufts has seen eleven breeds from the hound category win the ‘Best of Show’ award but never the Rhodesian Ridgeback. That has to change soon though surely?

Recently the Kennel Club released a list of the one hundred and fifty five breeds recognised by them in order of popularity. The Rhodesian Ridgeback made it well and truly into the top half by registering at fifty five. This is a fantastic achievement for a breed that is still thought of by many as ‘the lion killing dog.’

Rhodesian Ridgebacks also make good placings on lists such as ‘best guard dogs’, ‘best dog breeds with children’, and general popularity outside of the kennel club. It’s not hard to see why when you consider their personality, temperament and looks. They are a great all rounder suitable for every family and home as long as you’re prepared to put in a little work training them.

No one can state with any certainty what the future of the Rhodesian Ridgeback holds. It is, of course, to be hoped that they will continue to be welcomed into people’s homes as the great family pet that they are. After all, who wouldn’t want a handsome, dignified, loving and loyal companion to greet them at the door?

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