Where are Rhodesian Ridgebacks From?

Are Rhodesian Ridgebacks from Rhodesia? Start scrolling down a list of dog breeds and it is amazing how many breed names include some geographical reference. I always assume it must indicate where the breed is from but is that necessarily true? (And is there still such a place as Rhodesia?)

Where are Rhodesian Ridgebacks from? Rhodesia. Well, sort of. The country of Rhodesia only existed from 1965 to 1979. Since then it is called Zimbabwe. But the point is that the Ridgeback has a heritage that includes dogs from South Africa, Zaire, Angola, Tanzania, and Zambia in addition to Rhodesia. The breed is described as a southern African dog.

There are only 3 dog breeds in the world who have the distinctive ridge of hair running down the spine. They are the Rhodesian Ridgeback, the Thai Ridgeback, and the Phu Quoc Dog of the island of the same tongue-twisting name in Vietnam. The last one is very rare especially if you’re looking for purebreds.

Origin of Ridgebacks in Rhodesia

Rhodesian Ridgeback Origin

It is generally accepted that the Ridgebacks in Rhodesia originated from 2 bitches that were brought in 1879 to the mission at Hope Fountain near what is now Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, by the Reverend Charles Daniel Helm.

Interesting footnote – besides a Protestant Missionary he was also a member of the Rhodesia Scientific Association.

He got the dogs from his birthplace Zuurbraak, near the town called Swellendam, only the third town that was established by the Dutch East India Company in the Cape of Good Hope.

But where did those dogs in turn come from?

Everybody Knows

A piece that was written by S.H. Stewart of the Rhodesian Ridgeback International Foundation on the origin of Rhodesian Ridgebacks is endlessly repeated on websites, but nobody seems to have tried to verify any of the statements made.

The books that he refers to are not unobtainable, but you can not read it without buying the physical book.

Some of the editions come at quite a price.

One site also repeats Stewart’s piece verbatim but includes a typical 1800’s type drawing of dogs holding a lion at bay.

The implication is that they were Ridgebacks, but again, no source acknowledged.

The Rhodesian Breed

The Rhodesian Ridgeback (Lion Dog) Club was established in Bulawayo in 1922.

The breed standard was drafted by F R Barnes.

The various kennel clubs over the world registered the breed in the years that followed. The Rhodesian Ridgeback was originally bred as a gun dog but these days it is usually registered as a hound.

Is a Ridgeback a Lion Dog?

The ridgeback was famously known by other names such as:

  • African Lion Hound
  • African Lion Dog
  • Lion Hound
  • Van Rooyen’s Lion Dog

Cornelius Johannes van Rooyen was a hunter from Uitenhage in South Africa. He wandered north to Pretoria, the Victoria Falls, Umtali and eventually died in 1915 in Bulawayo in what was then called Southern Rhodesia.

During his life he acquired and bred ridgeback dogs that accompanied him on his travels. He is credited with crossing the ridgebacks with a diverse set of dogs including:

  • Bloodhound/Pointer
  • Greyhound
  • Bulldog/Bull Terrier
  • Airedale and Irish Terrier
  • Deer-/staghound

Out of this medley emerged a dog that had all kinds of different looks but one thing it always had was the ridge of otherwise-growing hair down the back. Van Rooyen’s dogs became sought-after specimens that constituted the first stock of various other ridgeback breeders.

Ridgebacks in Africa

There are many statements to the effect that ridgeback dogs were commonly encountered throughout Africa in previous centuries, particularly dogs similar to the Sitka.

This kind of dog was also called the Hottentot Hunting Dog and is described in the book “The Yellow and Dark-skinned People Of Africa South Of The Zambesi” by George McCall Theal, published in 1910, as follows:

“The only other domestic animal was the dog. He was an ugly creature, his body being shaped like that of a jackal, and the hair on his spine being turned forward ; but he was a faithful, serviceable animal of his kind.”

It is also repeated by many sources that there is a “written record” of ridgeback dogs in the Cape (South Africa) from 1729 but no actual reference is given, so it can not be verified.

However, in the book “A Popular Account of Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa” (1861 edition) by Dr. David Livingstone, there is an illustration titled “Hottentots – Women Returning From The Water, And Men Around A Dead Harte-Beest”.

And lo, in the lower right hand corner a dog with his back turned towards the viewer very clearly displays a broad ridge on the back.

Good enough for me – the Ridgeback was known in southern Africa at least as early as 1861!

Other Ridgeback Records

  • David Hancock says in his book Hounds: Hunting by Scent (2014) on p.187  that the first printed use of the word “ridgeback” was in a newspaper advertisement of 1912 for ridgeback pups.
  • The Rhodesian Ridgeback Club published a very informative booklet called The Handbook of the Rhodesian Ridgeback Club (revised and reprinted 1999). Here can be found the whole history of breeders since 1922 and their contributions to the development and preservation of the breed characteristics.
  • What is interesting is the statement about a certain Professor Ludvic von Schulmuth who was apparently a noted cynologist. He is said to have unearthed the remains of several Hottentot dogs, in a dig near the Orange River in 1936. Apparently enough material was preserved to show a ridge, erect ears, a broad flat skull and a long bushy tail. Furthermore it is said that all these features tally with the known description of the Hottentot Hunting Dog. No reference is given to the source of this “known description”. This bit of history is also endlessly repeated across a number of websites without any verifiable reference. Prof. von Schulmuth and the records of this dig remain shrouded in mystery…
  • Other statements to the effect that there is an Egyptian tomb ca. 4000 BC with a drawing of a dog looking like a ridgeback also remain unverified.
  • Dr. Tony Monda, who holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and Post-Colonial Heritage Studies alleges that the Ridgeback existed in Zimbabwe since 4BC  and was called “imbwa yemadzitateguru”. This phrase can be translated as “dog of the forefathers”. He gives no source for this information.

In Summary

Although some speculation is made that ridgeback dogs were brought from the Siam area by traders through North Africa to Central and Eastern Africa, and from hence to the southern tip of Africa, no hard evidence is postulated anywhere.

Nevertheless, it seems that ridgeback dogs were encountered by explorers and hunters in Africa long before the 1800’s, based on anecdotal references in their writings.

More reliable information establishes that ridgeback dogs were crossbred by Europeans (hunters, settlers, Boers, British, etc.) with their own well-known breeds until a dog that was universally used for guarding, hunting, chasing, and as an allrounder, was present just about all over southern Africa.

Some Interesting Tidbits (besides the ridge)

  • The Rhodesian Ridgeback does not bark a lot.
  • Only one of a pair of dogs has to have the ridge for it to appear in the puppies.
  • A ridgeless dog will never develop a ridge.

Related Questions

Did Rhodesian Ridgebacks (“Lion Dogs”) hunt lions?

No. Not in the literal sense of the word. The human hunters hunted lions and used the dogs for tracking, chasing, and baying. That means the dogs cornered the lion (or other big game animal) then kept it from escaping until the hunter arrived to shoot it. The dogs did hunt, meaning to chase and to kill, other game like buck and warthog.

What books about Rhodesian Ridgebacks are good to read?

A list of books that would interest a Rhodesian Ridgeback owner or wannabe owner can be found here. (There are a few spelling mistakes)

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