What Were Rhodesian Ridgebacks Bred For? History Explained
Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs today are instantly recognizable for their lean bodies, reddish fur, and distinctive “ridge” of hair running down their spine. They’re also well known for their reputation as African hunting dogs and even as fierce lion-killers. But if you’ve ever wondered what the true history of South Africa’s only indigenous breed is, you’re in for a treat. Rhodesian Ridgebacks have a long and exciting history that is deeply entwined with the history of Africa itself.
African Origins (Before 1650)
Not much is known about the dogs that lived in Africa before European arrival, but it’s likely that the Ridgeback’s ancestors roamed the southern tip of the continent for thousands of years before anyone in Europe knew about them. By the 1600s, one of the predominant cultures in the southern part of Africa was the Khoekhoe people, who lived in modern-day South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and surrounding areas.
The Khoekhoe lived nomadic lives herding cattle, and the first Ridgebacks were half-wild dogs that they used for hunting and guarding. These dogs wouldn’t be recognizable to a Rhodesian Ridgeback owner today—for one thing, they were much smaller, coming in at only around 18 inches at the shoulder, compared to the modern Rhodesian Ridgeback’s 24–27 inches! They also likely had a variety of coat colors and patterns. But these dogs did have two traits that would stay constant—an incredible sense of bravery that let them thrive despite dangerous predators and a 2-inch-wide strip of fur that ran backwards along their spines, creating a distinctive ridge.
Boer Crossbreeding (1650-1875)
Up until this point, the Ridgeback was a purely African dog. But like so many things, cultural exchange and colonialism would have a profound impact on the breed. In the 1650s, the Dutch established a colony in South Africa, and as they spread, they inevitably came into contact with the Khoekhoe and their unique dogs. Many European writers wrote about the fierceness and bravery of these little African dogs, and once Boers, or farmers, began bringing their own dogs down to help on the farm, it was inevitable that there would be some crossbreeding. The ridge along the back is a dominant trait, so before long, many mixed-breed farm dogs had the distinct mark of Ridgeback ancestry.
Despite the frequent crossbreeding, the Dutch and later English settlers were too practical to spend much time thinking about what breed their dog was. For more than two centuries, Ridgebacks and European dogs like Greyhounds, Terriers, and Great Danes intermixed freely.
The Colonist’s Lion-Hunter (1875-1900)
It wasn’t until the 1870s that a South African had the time and interest to look at these hybrid dogs more closely and establish a breeding program. That’s when the big game hunter Cornelius van Rooyen took a shine to his friend’s two ridge-backed dogs. He already had a pack of hunting dogs of his own, but he was interested in finding dogs that could successfully harry a lion, taunting it and distracting it so he could go in for the kill. That’s a big job—it requires speed, agility, bravery, and intelligence. Despite their reputation as lion killers, van Rooyen’s dogs never actually attacked the lions—instead, they served to lure a lion out into the open and keep it there.
Although he might have had some influence over how his hunting dogs bred, the biggest influence on his breeding program was sheer ability to survive, and Ridgebacks excelled. By the end of the 1900s, his population of dogs was beginning to resemble a true breed, with all the best traits of the Ridgeback married to a strong European hunting dog stock.
Breed Foundations (1900-1928)
By the turn of the 20th century, fanciers had taken note of van Rooyen’s “Lion dogs” and began to wonder if they were good for more than hunting. Soon, the first true breeding programs sprung up. These dogs were touted as loyal companions, hardy guard dogs, clever hunting dogs, and tenacious pest exterminators. Breeders began to favor reddish-brown coats that they believed represented the true African dog.
In 1922, the first breed standard was drawn up by a group of owners, bringing together dogs with diverse appearances and deciding what the ideal should look like. They also settled on the name Rhodesian Ridgeback, a name that’s stuck with the breed ever since. Over the next several years, they built up a population of dogs that fit their standard, and the true Rhodesian Ridgeback was born.
The International Ridgeback (1928-Present)
Once the breed was established, it didn’t take long for it to begin traveling the world, and in 1928, the first Ridgebacks were shown in Britain. But the breed stagnated internationally for more than 20 years in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II. During these years, few Rhodesian Ridgebacks left the country, and they mostly went unrecognized by international kennel clubs.
Finally, in the 1950s, the Rhodesian Ridgebacks got their second chance. Six dogs were brought to the US in 1952, and from there, the breed grew steadily in numbers and popularity. By the end of the 1950s, they were recognized by the American Kennel Club, the Kennel Club of Great Britain, and many other organizations across the world
Today, it is the 41st most popular dog breed in the US according to the American Kennel Club, and thousands of owners get to treasure a beloved pet with all the intelligence and bravery of its African ancestors.
Featured Image Credit: Osetrik, Shutterstock