Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Rhodesian Ridgebacks
Susan Ralston, V.M.D, Ridge View Ranch
Danielle Sand, V.M.D., Ivy League
As told to Dog & Kennel Magazine

How does the history of the breed play a part in modern specimens regarding structure & function?

The breed was developed for the dual purposes of hunting game and protecting the family. As such, they must be athletic and sturdy, with a temperament fearless enough to hunt and bay their quarry, yet kind and gentle enough to be trusted with children. The Ridgeback must have adequate bone and substance to withstand their hunting duties, yet not be too bulky that they cannot move swiftly and with endurance. They are fiercely loyal to their families, and may be reserved around strangers. They should not be overly timid, nor should they exhibit aggression toward humans or other dogs. These dogs were bred to work in packs, and as such must be able to get along with other dogs. This is really a young breed compared to some, so it is still evolving. The Standard was only written in the late 1920's. They didn't even arrive here in the U.S. until the 1950's. So many different breeds went into forming the Ridgeback breed, so there is a lot of latitude within the standard for variations in type. The dog is multi-purpose, and a Ridgeback bred correctly to the standard should be able to do any of the functions we ask them to do today. There has been an emphasis in the U.S. on outstanding temperaments, and we have done much to smooth out any rough edges that may have been present in the breed many years ago.

The ridge is the hallmark of the breed. Ideally, it originates between the tops of the shoulder blades and extends to the hip bone prominences (wings of the ilium). The perfect ridge has 2 crowns (whorls or cowlicks) directly across from each other at the top of the ridge. There is no specification for the width of the ridge. The ridge is a dominant genetic feature, and was preserved when European breeds were crossed with the ridged semi-feral South African Hottentot dogs. Early observers in South Africa thought only the ridged dogs were courageous enough to close in on lions. A perfect ridge is absolutely necessary for the dog to be shown. We must not forget that there is a dog under that ridge. Structure and balance are crucial. Angulation is moderate, equal front and rear. A moderate dog is ideal. When looking at the head, remember what the dog's purpose is-they need to see, smell, and hear when they are hunting. So, the important things are: large eyes, large ears, big nose, strong underjaw, and parallel planes. The neck should be free of excess skin and its insertion into the shoulder should be clean and free of any wrinkling. Feet should be high, elastic, and compact with well-arched toes. Flat feet would never do, as these dogs are expected to hunt on rough and varied terrain. Gait should be flowing and effortless and dogs with correct structure will be able to move as they should. As a dog moves, so is it made. An unbalanced dog will lead to improper movement.

This is an athletic dog, well-muscled with the ability to chase game at high speed over long distance. They hunt by both sight and scent. The American Standard calls for females to be between 24 and 26 inches at the withers, and males are 25 to 27 inches. Bigger is not necessarily better. There arises some confusion when these dogs are referred to as "African Lion Hounds". People think they are to bring down a lion. It is a rare dog that could accomplish that without being severely or fatally wounded. Rather, these dogs work in packs to distract and tease their prey, possibly disabling them, and containing them at bay until the hunter arrives. A large, bulky dog may very well not be agile and quick enough to stay out of the path of prey while accomplishing this. As far as gait, they should be able to cover ground effortlessly at the trot, as well as be able to gallop at a fair amount of speed. The Ridgeback does engage in the suspended gallop. The ability to move in such a correct and effortless fashion is dependent upon good structure and balance. The front assembly is most critical, with a nice layback of shoulder, and adequate length and return of upper arm. The hocks should be well let down, with rear angulation equal to that of the front. This breed does not have to have complete dentition, although that is most desirable. Occasionally, Ridgebacks may be missing some premolars. Breeders should be careful if missing teeth become too common in their program.

Ridgebacks must be courageous enough to engage in hunting and protecting the family. For the most part, they have a strong prey drive, especially females. They must also be kind enough to humans so as to fit in with the family. They are fiercely loyal, and love being included in family activities. Their personalities blossom when they are part of the family, housed in the home and not kenneled. They are like the Princess and the Pea, preferring to be on the softest bed, sofa, or chair in the house!

Regarding personality--As a hound with keen sight and scent, has the breed stayed true to its origins or has it evolved?

These hounds have very strong instincts, which must not be underestimated. They are still keen to hunt by both sight and scent. They are for the most part true to their original functions as hunter and family guardian. A drawback is that, due to their intense prey drive, the leading cause of death in adult Ridgebacks is hit by car. Fencing is an absolute must. If they see something, they will go for it, with no regard to traffic. Natural instinct often overrides sensibility and in a world full of vehicles, this is a problem. Off-leash is most often not an option. Obedience training with an emphasis on recall is crucial. These dogs are not for every American family. They have boundless energy and are by nature in great physical condition. Regular exercise is absolutely necessary to their mental and physical well- being. The nice thing is, once you've worn them out, they'll just curl up and sleep!

Other breeds used to develop the Rhodesian Ridgeback?

Many European breeds were crossed with the scrappy, wirey-haired, rough-coated Hottentot ridged dogs. Many breeds probably entered into the mix: Pointers; Airdales; Irish Terriers; Greyhounds; Bulldogs; Deerhounds; Mastiff.

What are the variations in coat color and nose color?

There are 3 categories of color for Ridgebacks-light wheaten, wheaten, and red wheaten. The coat is variegated, meaning the tips of the hair are always darker than the base. This gives shading over the shoulders and other areas. Ridgebacks should never be a solid color, the coat has varied hues. Both liver and black nosed dogs are acceptable. Eye color should harmonize with nose and coat color. Black is allowed on the muzzle and ears but excessive black markings are undesirable. Darker dogs may overheat more readily than a lighter colored dog. Some white is acceptable on feet and chest and white should never become a taboo. An outstanding individual should never be penalized for white markings.

How is the RR both typical and atypical of its hound heritage?

Due to the fact they are hounds, they may be aloof. As with most hounds, they are very aware of surroundings but often not immediately responsive. They will usually will stop and think before reacting inappropriately, except when it comes to chasing “prey” such as your neighbor’s cat! Some Ridgebacks are more vocal while others are quiet observers, barking only if deemed necessary. If a Ridgeback barks, pay attention. They are not frivolous barkers.
For the most part they range from affectionate to indifferent, rarely threatening unless they perceive danger to their family.
Trainability is variable. As a rule, their primary motivation is not to please their owners, although for food they'll do almost anything! This is also a hound trait. They are not like a Lab or Golden Retriever, rather they often have their own agenda which could mean going off to hunt something on their own, or simply ignoring you. This is a typical hound demeanor. Not to say some aren't out there getting top obedience and agility honors, just that there are other breeds more uniformly suited for these endeavors. These dogs love their families without question, they just sometimes aren't overly exuberant about finding out what they can do for you all the time.

How intelligent are Ridgebacks?

Incredibly intelligent. This is why they may be considered by some to be difficult to train. They need to understand before doing some things. Heavy-handedness is never the answer, even though they can be frustrating and push some buttons. Their intelligence would never allow them to forgive and forget abusive treatment.

Are they independent?

Some are extremely so, others never have you out of their sight.

How are Ridgebacks with children and other pets?

They are generally tolerant of other pets and children. Their original job was to guard the family so they are very good with children as a rule. If not raised with children, introduce them sensibly. Remember, the Ridgeback may be inclined to chase anything fast-moving and unpredictable, so proceed with caution. They need to have their own "down time", though, and children should not be allowed to abuse or overload the dog with unrelenting attention. Because of their size and strength, they can be very physical dogs. They love to greet people by jumping up on them but this is easily trained out of them. This breed is slow-maturing and as such they may be "puppy-like" for a longer period. They often do not reach physical and mental maturity until 2 years of age or older. Because the Ridgeback’s hunting instincts are so strong, prospective owners must always concern themselves with the safety of these dogs and the people around them. They are strong and muscular, and should probably not be walked by children. If they should see something, they may be hard to restrain.
Cats and other pets in the house are fine, but it may be difficult to introduce cats and other small pets after the Ridgeback is an adult. Animals outside, perhaps a cat cruising across the yard, are a different story. Ridgebacks may hunt and kill small prey, such as cats and rabbits. Rule of thumb--if it's outside, moving, possibly also making noise, the Ridgeback is likely going to chase it and may inflict harm.

What about fencing?

The need for a secure fenced area is an absolute must.

What kind of mischief might they get into?

These can be very challenging pups to raise. Some are incredibly mischieveous. They are into everything, and can chew and destroy in rapid time. They may also harm themselves if allowed to chew on and possibly consume dangerous things. These dogs are extremely food-motivated and often will eat anything. In fact, most of the mischief involves food. They are renowned counter-surfers and inveterate food-stealers! It is not uncommon to have puppies (and even adult dogs) eat something that has to surgically removed from the intestine. Their mischieveousness often lasts into their second year or so. Some can never be fully trusted. Crates are a must. This breed may be more "mouthy" than others, especially as puppies and often as adults. They may interact by taking hold of their people by the arm or hand. Not meaning to injure, just a possessive behavior.

What is the ideal home and environment for a Rhodesian Ridgeback?

Ridgebacks are great companions for those who enjoy outdoor activities. An active family with lots of opportunity for the dog to be exercised is ideal. Patient, kind family members willing to take the time to understand and properly train their Ridgeback. A large fenced yard is a must, with ideally a 6 foot fence. Some Ridgebacks will climb even a 5 foot fence, and 4 foot fencing is little deterrent at all to escaping in most cases. Ridgebacks should never be left unattended in strange surroundings as they may jump, dig, or run in order to find their owners.

Do they have a pack mentality?

They love the companionship of other dogs, and do very well in the pack situation & multi-dog households. They often play a bit rough.

How much attention do they need?

These dogs thrive on attention and can develop behavior problems if kenneled for long periods and not an important part of the family. It is not appropriate to have a Ridgeback living entirely in a yard with no time in the house hanging out with the family. Socialization of puppies is especially important. They need to get out and meet people and other dogs.

What about versatility?

These dogs can do it all--conformation, lure coursing, tracking, herding, obedience, therapy, and agility. Some are more talented at the different disciplines, but Ridgebacks have participated in all of these activities.

What are the grooming and hygiene requirements?

Weekly nail trims are essential. As a rule, Ridgebacks hate to have their nails trimmed, but with patience and kindness it can be accomplished. They grow very rapidly and nail care cannot be neglected. Using a Dremel is a good option to keep the nails short and rounded. Once weekly brushing to remove dead hair is desirable. They have short coats and do not shed excessively, but need to be brushed nonetheless. Teeth brushing will help keep plaque at a minimum, and the breath fresh. Occasionally ears will need to be cleaned with an ear flushing solution.

Any special considerations as far as training?

It is essential to begin at an early age with puppy preschool and obedience. Owners are strongly encouraged to enroll puppies in an organized class as the time spent together is very beneficial in establishing the relationship. It is best to find a trainer who understands the breed and would under no circumstance employ harsh punishment techniques. Positive, positive, positive is the only way to go with these dogs. Certainly a careful and appropriate correction may be necessary on occasion, but not as a primary training technique.

Any special considerations as far as nutrition?

Feed a top quality commercial diet or raw diet. Sometimes these dogs are difficult to keep weight on, and other times they are too heavy. Hypothyroidism is a problem in the breed, and overweight lethargic dogs should be screened for this.

How about exercise?

Lots and lots but no road running until the dog is at least a year old. Common sense says no excessive training on unforgiving surfaces such as concrete.

What are the important health concerns for the Rhodesian Ridgeback breed?

Hypothyroidism, hip and elbow dysplasia, degenerative myelopathy, deafness, cancer, juvenile cataracts, dermoid sinus.
All breeding stock should be screened radiographically for hip and elbow dysplasia prior to breeding. Affected individuals should not be bred. Breeding stock should also be screened for hypothyroidism with a complete blood panel that includes a measurement of TGAA (thyroglobulin auto-antibody) for the inherited auto-immune thyroiditis.  Degenerative Myelopathy DNA testing should be performed prior to breeding as well. Ocular CERF and cardiac evaluations are also highly recommended.

When looking for a puppy, always ask which health screens have been performed, and what the results were. A breeder should be prepared to show you all the results of heath screens.

Copyright 2004. Ralston/Sand.