This article originally appeared in the August 2005 issue of the AKC Gazette.
© 2005 by Denise Flaim,
Reproduced here with permission of the author. 

By Denise Flaim 

The February 1954 issue of Scoop magazine – the one with a well-endowed Mrs. Claus wearing fishnets and a fur-trimmed bustiere on the cover – contains everything you’d expect in a girlie magazine of its vintage, from a pictorial of a “make your own bra” contest to an ad for a “bedside joke book” called Bed-Lam in the Boudoir.

But there’s one article you might not anticipate, about a curious new breed of dog the editors thought sure to appeal to their macho readership.

“World’s Toughest Dogs,” reads the two-page article’s headline. “Rhodesian Ridgebacks are so ferocious they hunt lions.”

Today, a half-century after the American Kennel Club officially recognized the Rhodesian Ridgeback in November 1955, that lion-killer stereotype persists, giving rise to wince-inducing ringside comments about dogs “big enough to bring down a lion.” Lion baying -- which never required contact with the king of beasts, only the agility to stay out of the range of its punishing claws – might have been the Ridgeback’s most publicized job. But the breed had many less glamorous ones, such as tracking and bringing down game of all sizes, and watching over home and hearth.

In that respect, our often misunderstood hounds can commiserate with the scantily clad women in those now brittle magazine pages: They too are often judged – and misjudged – on their outward appearance by those who fail to see the complexity beneath.

Indeed, this Renaissance hound frustrates efforts at pigeonholing. Until the late 1940s, the South African Kennel Union grouped the Ridgeback with Gun Dogs. Overseas, under the Federation Cynologique Internationale standard, the Ridgeback today is considered a scenthound, while the AKC classifies him as a sighthound. Still more confounding is the template for the first Ridgeback standard, penned in 1922, much of it cribbed from (of all things) that endurance-trotting Dalmatian.

Reflecting the breed’s great versatility, Ridgeback nationals are jam-packed with seemingly endless performance events, from lure-coursing and agility to endurance trials and herding-instinct tests.

“We need to be mindful that the Ridgeback is a working hound,” stresses breeder-judge Barbara Rupert of Oakhurst Rhodesian Ridgebacks in Fallbrook, California, pointing out that whether he was asked to course antelope at full tilt, or trot efficiently alongside his owner’s horse for a day’s trek, or snooze in the shade while the family’s children played nearby, the Ridgeback required adaptability, a trait that bedevils purists. “I think we would do our breed a great injustice by breeding to enhance the dog’s ability to perform well in one area only,” she says, “rather than breed for the multi-tasking he was originally designed for.”

And designed the Ridgeback was, a meticulously crafted canine cocktail that, like a good martini, maintains a delicate balance between smoothness and strength: a dog that is strong yet agile, powerful yet economical, courageous yet intelligent. The native ingredient was the small ridged hunting dog of the pastoral Khoikhoi people of South Africa. Early accounts conflict over whether these indigenous jackal-like dogs were valued or ignored. What we do know is they were crossed – intentionally or not -- with European purebreds, imparting not just their ability to withstand the punishing African climate and terrain, but also the peculiar stripe of backward-growing hair that eventually became the hallmark of the breed.

While South Africa provided a cradle for the Ridgeback, it was Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe, that ushered in its adolescence. In the late 1870s, Reverend Charles Helm left two ridged, greyhound-like bitches named Powder and Lorna with Rhodesian farmer Cornelius van Rooyen, who made a name for himself by taking rich Europeans on big-game-hunting expeditions and capturing young animals for foreign zoos. Van Rooyen interbred the rough-coated bitches with his pack of lion-hunting dogs, and noted that the ridged progeny excelled at the work. Their odd dorsal stripe was a natural for what today’s marketers would call image branding, and in short order van Rooyen’s “Lion Dogs” became famous and coveted canines.

A relatively young breed, the Rhodesian Ridgeback was born in a landscape where daily survival, and not meticulous record-keeping, was the emphasis. So while no one can say with certainty what breeds went in to its development, there are some educated guesses. In his book The Definitive Rhodesian Ridgeback, the late Canadian breeder-judge David Helgesen theorized that the gene pool included greyhounds and deerhounds, which contributed speed and body type; bulldogs, which added substance and biting power, but also sowed seeds for the drag of the breed, including lack of height, excess white and soft toplines; pointers, common in late 19th Century Rhodesia, which offered scenting ability; Irish and Airedale terriers, for the tenacity and pluck required of a lion hunter, as well as their coat color; and collies, for slashing and herding ability.

Perhaps there is no more eloquent description of the Ridgeback’s role in agitating and maneuvering his dangerous prey than this one, from the seminal book on the breed, Major Tom Hawley’s The Rhodesian Ridgeback: The Origin, History and Standard of the Breed:

“The ridgeback, singly or in a pack, will silently track the lion to its lair, and only on discovery of its quarry will it give tongue; tantalising, feinting, darting in and out, just beyond the reach of those fearful slashing claws, with the nonchalance of a matador,” he writes, “harassing and wearing it down until that majestic creature, bewildered by such elusive impudence and weary of trying to shake off its tenacious nuisance, presents a sitting target of injured majesty.”

Such dangerous work required a special character – brave and bold, yet sensible and tactical enough to know when to retreat. At once imposing and sensitive, the Ridgeback is undemonstrative with strangers, but meltingly affectionate to those he loves and trusts. This is one area where the breed is frequently misunderstood, often by judges who approach with apprehension.

“There is a wisdom, a knowingness, and maybe a lack of fear,” says breeder-judge Alicia Hanna of Kimani Kennels in Chester, N.J., “Maybe that’s why judges hesitate. Because the dogs are honestly looking at them. In some breeds, that’s a threat. In ours, it’s a study.”

Indeed, Hanna continues, the biggest misconception about the Ridgeback is that it has the mind of a Working dog, when nothing could be further from the truth. Ill-suited for protection work because he is too intelligent to be called off, and reserved but never overly suspicious with those he does not know, “the Ridgeback has all the sensitivities that a sighthound manifests,” she says. “Our dogs are very emotional and their body English” – from leaning on their handlers to backing away from a judge who does not approach them with confidence – “tells you what they are thinking.”

The breed’s deep intelligence can also work against it in the ring, adds Diane Jacobsen of Calico Ridge Rhodesian Ridgebacks in Sebastopol, Calif. “One big problem with the judging of Ridgebacks is there is too much emphasis on showmanship,” she says. Quickly bored and prone to think independently, “Ridgebacks are a union dog – no pay, no play, and they want double time.”

“Temperaments were much tougher in the early days than they are today,” remembers breeder-judge D. Jay Hyman of Rollings Kennels in Mt. Airy, Md., the longest-standing active Ridgeback breeder in the country. “Temperaments much better now, and I think overall they’re probably softer.”

When it comes to genetic issues, modern breeders still struggle with one of the same problems the earliest African breeders did: ridgelessness, the only disqualification in the AKC standard. Mark Neff, the geneticist at the University of California at Davis who is currently studying Ridgeback DNA in the hopes of finding a genetic marker for the ridge, posits that it is likely a simple dominant trait, which means that only one parent needs to be ridged in order to pass it on.

A serious health defect thought to be linked to the presence of the ridge is dermoid sinus, a neural tube opening on the dorsal midline of the dog that will become repeatedly infected and abscessed unless removed. In the early years of the breed, both ridgeless and dermoid puppies were routinely culled. Today, with changing social attitudes and advanced surgical techniques for dermoid removal, some breeders opt to place these puppies in pet homes with strict spay-neuter contracts, while others continue to cull, following long-established practice that was exported to this country along with the very first foundation dogs in the 1950s.

In recent years, hypothyroidism has become a growing issue in the breed, which is ranked number 9 and 17 in cases of inheritable hypothyroidism documented by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals and Michigan State University, respectively. Other areas of concern include certain cancers such as mast cell tumors and osteosarcoma.

Hip dysplasia, that bane of many large-breed dogs, is relatively uncommon in the Ridgeback, with only 5.6 percent of dogs affected, according to current OFA statistics. This is due in large part to the diligence of the earliest American breeders, who began X-raying the hips of breeding stock long before anyone had ever heard of the acronym OFA.

Myrna Berger of Rob-Norm Rhodesian Ridgebacks in Valley Village, Calif., says she sees more uniformity in type today than when she started breeding 40 years ago. Then, she says, “fronts were bad, and the rears were sounder. Today, it’s the reverse. And you need a strong rear on a Ridgeback because the rear is what propels and pushes them out of the way.” Other areas constantly needing improvement, breeders say in unison, are shoulder angulation, and return and length of the upper arm.

While Ridgeback breeders often focus their criticisms more on structural qualities, those outside the breed tend to linger on cosmetics, including excessive white, which by definition is anything that extends beyond the splashes of color permissible on the chest and toes.

Traditionally, American breeder-judges have been relatively forgiving of white, echoing the admonishments of South Africa’s Major Hawley that white is likely linked to other positive attributes, was very common on early dogs, and so should never be eliminated entirely. “We are unanimous that it should be kept at a minimum,” goes his oft-quoted advice on white, which walks a fine line between restraint and permissiveness, “but we must at all costs avoid a fetish that white is taboo.”

“Judges worry too much about white, because it’s easier to see white than to find a good front,” says breeder-judge Barbara Sawyer-Brown of Kwetu Reg. in Chicago. “In 30 years in the breed, I’ve never judged what I consider excessive white, nor have I seen it in the ring. I have seen short white socks. But on an otherwise sound and typey dog, I wouldn’t fault that or use it as a deciding factor.”

Another area of confusion is coat color. The first Ridgeback standard adopted in 1926 permitted a variety of colors, including brindles and sables. Soon after, likely through happenstance or politics, wheaten was declared the only acceptable color.

The Ridgeback standard states color as simply “light to dark wheaten,” yet many judges incorrectly avoid the lighter-colored dogs in the ring. Wheaten – literally, the color of wheat – has many shades, as does the crop itself, including pale flaxen. That show ring cliché – big and red with a black mask – is a narrow sliver of what the breed can and should look like. What all shades of wheaten have in common is warmth, the hint of the sun.

“Because of so many judges' preference for dark red wheaten Ridgebacks, I fear that 10 years from now Ridgebacks will only be that dark red wheaten color,” says Sawyer-Brown, “and gone forever will be that lovely shade of deadgrass that is rarely, if ever, seen these days.”

Nose color – specifically, liver – was one area where early Rhodesian breeders disagreed. Happily for the gene pool (livernoses are thought to be important for maintaining the clarity and vibrancy of the coat), brown noses survived that roll of the historical dice, and today are considered just as correct as their black-nosed counterparts.

Size is another perennial debate that has dogged the breed since its earliest days. Indeed, no part of the standard has seen more seesawing than the suggested maximum heights for dogs and bitches, which today are 27 inches and 26 inches, respectively, but once went as high as 28 and as low as 26 inches for males.

Acknowledging that the breed has a range of sizes, just as it does body styles, Hanna stresses that the key is that mass should never compromise athleticism. “We need to be a dog that’s easy to transport, easy to maintain, and is agile in its hunting purpose,” she says. “That’s a medium-size large dog, but it’s not a giant, and it’s not Dane or mastiff like.”

After little more than a half-century in this country, the Ridgeback has come a long way – and at the same time, he has not.

Bill O’Brien of Redhouse Kennels is the man whose Ridgebacks were photographed for that long-ago Scoop story. In 1950, he stepped off the gangplank of the African Rainbow in Boston Harbor with the first three registered Rhodesian Ridgebacks in the United States – Tchaika, Caesar and Zua. He started the first national club, the Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of America, which in 1957 merged with the present parent club. Issuing pedigrees for a dollar, he eventually amassed 424 of them, and turned his ledgers over to the AKC to register this foundation stock and form the basis for AKC recognition.

Today, O’Brien lives in Paradise Valley, Ariz., light years away from the riverside village of Redhouse, where he first acquired Ridgebacks to safeguard his wife Sada while he was away at other African ports on business as a wool merchant. He still has a Ridgeback, another Tchaika, and a deep passion for the breed he helped introduce to these shores. “Those Ridgebacks,” he says simply, “are one great breed of dog.”

Denise Flaim is the club historian and AKC Gazette breed columnist for the 
Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of the U.S., Inc.