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The Rhodesian Ridgeback is a dog breed indigenous to Southern Africa. 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 Khoisan people (referred to by the colonists as "Hottentots").
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 harass a lion and keep it at bay while awaiting their master to make the kill.
The original breed standard was drafted by F.R. Barnes, in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe), in 1922. It was based on that of the Dalmatian and was approved by the South African Kennel Union in 1926.
The 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 be 25-27 inches (63-69 cm) at the withers and weigh approximately 85 lb (36.5 kg FCI Standard), females 24-26 inches (61-66 cm) and approximately 70 lb (32 kg). 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. 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. White is acceptable on the chest and toes.
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:
Traditionally, many ridgeback puppies were culled at birth for numerous reasons, including ridgelessness. Some breed parent clubs and canine registries have even made the culling of ridgeless whelps a requirement. The Kennel Club which has for many years annually ratified the British parent club's code of ethics which states "Ridgeless puppies shall be culled.", is currently reviewing that portion of the parent club's code of ethics. Alternatively, growing numbers of contemporary breeders opt for surgical sterilization of these offspring to ensure they will not be bred but can live into maturity as non-showing, non-breeding pets.
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."
Genetically, the genotype that causes 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).
Dr. Mark Neff and his team of researchers at the University of California at Davis have located the mutation that causes a relatively rare, but breed-specific, form of deafness in the Ridgeback.
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 are often screened at birth by the breeder or veterinarian, 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 from. However, surgical dermoid sinus removal can be extremely cost prohibitive. Because all unremoved dermoid sinuses will eventually abscess, and abscessed dermoid sinuses will eventually cause the dog a painful death, dermoid puppies should be culled whenever surgical correction is not an option. However, it has been shown that supplementation of folic acid to the diet of the brood bitch before mating & during pregnancy reduces the incidence of dermoid sinus.
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. They also recommend that all Ridgeback owners enter their dogs' information in the Comprehensive Rhodesian Ridgeback Health Survey.
The Rhodesian Ridgeback was originally placed in the Gun Dog group by the South African Kennel Union for the first 20+ years of its existence as a standardized breed. The Union later changed its classification to the Hound group, and the breed is now classified as a Hound by registries the world over. Even as a hound, the breed's classification has not been without controversy. There is discussion regarding whether the Rhodesian Ridgeback is a sighthound or scent hound specifically.
Positions in this discussion usually mirror geography (and the body style of dog preferred), with Americans on the sighthound side of the debate and Europeans and Africans on the scenthound side. Further muddying the waters, Ridgebacks have a pre-caudal gland. Perhaps both are correct: the breed does not fit easily in either category. Ideally, Ridgebacks pursue their quarry using a method appropriate to the context: by sight when needed, or tracking by both air and ground scent when appropriate.
Alternatively, the Hunting Ridgeback Association (HRA) contends that neither classification is correct — that the Rhodesian Ridgeback is neither a sighthound, nor a scenthound, as those types are classically defined. They maintain that the Ridgeback is actually a silent tracking Cur dog.
Most Cur breeds are denoted by their fast, hard hunting style — a Cur is known for finding game using its eyes, ears and nose. Curs (as a true type, not simply a 'mixed-up' mongrel) were developed by early settlers in both southern Africa and the southern and western United States, as all-purpose, versatile dogs. While many of the U.S. Cur breeds were intentionally developed to tree, Ridgebacks were not. As silent trackers, not specifically developed to tree, a Ridgeback is usually a poor choice for a use as a lone tree dog.
Like other Cur breeds, Rhodesian Ridgebacks are currently used by hunters throughout the world to hunt all manner of game. Because of their tracking abilities, many Ridgebacks are used in Scandinavia and Germany to track and drive wild boar, deer, stag, and moose. Because of their predisposition to bay larger game on the ground, Rhodesian Ridgebacks and Blackmouths and other similar Cur breeds are used extensively in Texas, Southern Africa, and Northeastern Australia to hunt wild boar.
The history of the breed is disputed. What is commonly accepted is 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 breeds believed to have been used by van Rooyen to develop his famed lion-hunting dogs include the Collie, Greyhound, Irish terrier, Airedale, bulldog and pointer.
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. The breed was first admitted into the American Kennel Club in 1955 as a member of the Hound Group.
As hunters, Ridgebacks were sent out in packs of two or more to track down, then corner and wear down a lion by taunting and goading it into confusion, this is known 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.
The dogs themselves did not kill lions, but somehow over the years this fable began and still persists to this day. When not used for hunting, these dogs were family companions, guardians of the family and property, and cattle drovers.