This article originally appeared in Dog Fancy magazine.
© 2003 by Denise Flaim,
Reproduced here with permission of the author.

By Denise Flaim

The plumber lay sprawled on the kitchen floor, head and shoulders hidden as he tinkered with the pipes under the sink.

Breeder and judge Barbara Rupert of Oakhurst Kennels in Fallbrook, Calif., hovered nearby, awaiting the whopping bill. All the while, her Ridgeback Dakota looked on, perplexed at this headless newcomer.

“Finally, Dakota couldn’t take it any longer,” says Rupert with a chuckle. “So he sat on him.”

For those who only know the Ridgeback from afar, this plumber-squashing episode might sound uncharacteristic for a breed that has earned a reputation as a ferocious lion killer. But those who share their lives with this compelling but complicated hound recognize that clever, intuitive personality as the true essence of the breed.

As with most stereotypes, there is truth to the Ridgeback’s leonine connection. The breed’s roots trace back to South Africa, where the indigenous Khoikhoi tribe kept a semi-domesticated dog with a ridge of hair on its back. Europeans arrived in the 17th Century, and soon their continental breeds, such as greyhounds, mastiffs and deerhounds, intermingled with this native dog.

But it wasn’t until the late 1800s that the Ridgeback emerged in its modern form through the breeding efforts of Rhodesian big-game hunter Cornelius von Rooyen. Interbreeding his pack with Khoikhoi mixes, he created a multipurpose hound that could perform a variety of farm chores, have the strength and speed to bring down large antelope, and the dexterity and courage to bay, or corner, a lion.

“Rhodesian Ridgebacks were never bred to bring down lions,” admonishes breeder and judge Barbara Sawyer-Brown of Kwetu Kennels in Chicago. “Think about it: How big does a dog have to be to bring down a 400-pound king of carnivores who can reduce him to a bloodstain in five seconds?”

Instead, the Ridgeback used its agility and speed to taunt the lion, disorienting and tiring it until the hunter arrived to dispatch the killing shot. And that sheer physicality is one of the breed’s cautionary points.

“They aren’t a giant breed, but they are big and very exuberant,” says Rupert. “And they can knock over little kids, although they don’t mean to.”

Indeed, the breed plays the way it hunts, body-slamming and wrestling with Chewbacca-like vocalizations. Instilled with a prey drive that is ignited by movement, Ridgebacks are often very successful at lure-coursing, a sport that simulates a rabbit hunt, using a white plastic bag as a “bunny.” And they are unreliable off leash: Given a choice between heeding your “come” command and following a squirrel across a highway, the average Ridgeback will ignore you – and the oncoming traffic.

But for all their independence, Ridgebacks crave companionship. “They cannot be left alone in the yard,” says Rupert. “You have to have personal contact with them at all times. If you’re not there for them, don’t get a Ridgeback.”

In the home, Ridgebacks are easy keepers, content to slumber away the day – preferably on the sofa. Easily housebroken, they are quiet dogs, discriminating in what they choose to bark at.

But there is a flip side to this domestic bliss. “They are notorious counter surfers,” says Sawyer-Brown, who, as national director of Rhodesian Ridgeback Rescue, has seen dogs turned in for what she calls the “Les Miserables excuse” – stealing a loaf of bread. “They are side-swipers by nature and can knock you down if you are not careful. And they are real bedhogs!”

The biggest mistake a newbie can make about a Ridgeback is to assume its imposing physique comes with an equally tough temperament. The Ridgeback does not have a working-dog mentality like a Rottweiler; indeed, he is surprisingly soft and sensitive to heavy corrections, and will shut down with constant drilling; positive reinforcement with food rewards and short, upbeat training sessions are a must. Any punishment must be fair and justified.

“Harsh treatment will destroy their good character,” warns breeder and judge Alicia Mohr-Hanna of Kimani Kennels in Chester, N.J. “You have to train your own Ridgeback -- that is key. If a stranger starts jerking them around and correcting them, they get resistant and resentful.”

Mike Teeling of Tajamani Kennels in Corfu, N.Y., president of the Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of America, learned that the hard way with his first Ridgeback, Geni.

At training class, “the instructor asked if he could try to ‘shake her up’ and get her to react more quickly.” Reluctantly, Teeling handed over the lead, and the instructor administered rapid corrections, which indeed shook Geni up, but not the way he intended: After that experience, she decided her obedience career was over.

“You need to understand the Ridgeback’s desire as a hound – there’s a certain level of wanted independence,” says Teeling. “Ridgebacks are not there for your every beck and call. If you want a dog to chase tennis balls and return them to you each time, this is not the breed for you.”

Socializing a Ridgeback puppy is paramount. “The first impression is really important with this breed,” says Mohr-Hanna, adding that the very visual Ridgeback recognizes its own kind and should be exposed to different-looking dogs.

All this is not to say that the Ridgeback is a pushover when it comes to safeguarding its humans. Reserved but not suspicious with strangers, the Ridgeback has an uncanny ability to discriminate between a real threat and an imagined one.

“They are not a dog that bites first and then says, ‘Oh, no, I shouldn’t have done that,’” says Rupert, adding that Schutzhund or protection training should never be done with this sensitive, intelligent breed. “They are a thinking dog: They look at a situation and figure it out.”

When it comes to Ridgebacks and kids, most breeders stress that the older the child, the better. The Ridgeback is a very physical dog, and a puppy will jump and mouth. As an adult, one enthusiastic swat of that powerful tail is enough to leave a welt on a toddler.

“If the child is not compassionate, confident and trusting, or is too aggressive, it’s a difficult situation,” says Mohr-Hanna. “Seven and older is ideal, sometimes as young as 5 if the child is particularly mature.”

Though it is the deep-red, black-masked Ridgeback that many potential owners gravitate toward, every shade of wheaten, from light to dark, is permitted. And both nose colors – black and brown, also known as liver -- are equally correct according to the standard, though some swear that “lovernoses” are savvier. “I’ve heard that, but I think it’s more of a myth that the brown noses are more intelligent, more nutty, more energetic,” says Teeling, who lives with two of them.

A generally healthy breed, Ridgebacks are prone to a hereditary defect called dermoid sinus, a tubelike opening in the skin that will become repeatedly infected and abscessed unless surgically corrected. Reputable breeders certify that their dogs are free of hip and elbow dysplasia with the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals or a similar registry. Because hypothyroidism is an increasing concern in the breed, many breeders test for that, and also screen for cataracts with the Canine Eye Registry Foundation. In terms of surgical care, Ridgebacks have very low stores of body fat and cannot tolerate barbiturates well; surgery requires fast-acting anesthetics such as Isoflurane.

Uninformed admirers who seek out a male Ridgeback for its “macho” appeal will be disappointed to find that the breed is a “matriarchal society,” says Mohr-Hanna. “The female monopolizes the whole family. She will be the leader.” Ridgeback males -- universally referred to as “sweet” – tend to follow the female’s lead and good-naturedly accept her nagging and manipulating.

Owning a Ridgeback can be a delicate balancing act, navigating between its boundless athleticism and sensitive nature. The puppy-high jinks, the body-slamming, the counter-surfing, the selective deafness, the bed-hogging … the first few years with a Ridgeback can be a challenge, says Teeling. “But if you can deal with all that,” he concludes, “the payback is priceless.”