Although a relatively new breed, the history of the Rhodesian Ridgeback is as complex as it is interesting and varied.
In 1652, when the South African cape was first settled by white newcomers, they found the local Hottentot tribes had their own semi-domesticated camp dog – small, prick-eared, curled tail and a ridge of opposite-growing hair on its back. Although for the next several hundred years this breed interbred with the settler’s dogs, the ridge managed to persist through the generations.
Today, we credit three men we credit three men as being mainly responsible for bringing the Rhodesian Ridgeback to where it is today.
They were Charles Helm, Cornelius van Rooyen and Francis Barnes.
The Reverend Charles Helm, along with his wife and daughter, made the “trek” from Swellendam, in the Cape, to Hope Fountain in 1875 and took over the mission there.
Along with his family, he brought two ridged bitches, Powder and Lorna. All travelers to the area stopped to rest at the mission, as there was no other place, and it was here that Reverend Helm became friends with van Rooyen, the famous lion hunter and game procurer.
Helm’s two bitches interbred with van Rooyen’s hunting pack, the pups joining his pack and thus spreading the ridge factor. Unlike van Rooyen and Barnes, the Rev. Helm’s part in establishing the breed was purely accidental, but a fortunate first step for the Rhodesian Ridgeback. Helm brought two dogs to Hope Foundation from the Kimberley area, the land of the Khoikhoi. These dogs probably did not have ridges themselves, but when breed to van Rooyen´s existing pack produced them. The Helms dogs were larger than the ridged dogs common in the 1940s and 1950s. They were courageous, but had insufficient speed and scenting power, hunting mostly by sight.
Cornelius van Rooyen born at Uitenhage, Cape providence, 1860.
He earned a living for 41 years in that most dangerous of occupattions, African hunting. He preceded the settlers, hunting and hearding in rough triangle from Pretoria to Victoria Falls to Umtali.
He nursed his horses, cattle and dogs through outbreaks of horse sickness, sleeping sickness, redwater, rinderpest, anthrax, glanders, distemper, rabies and biliary fever. He nursed himself and his friendsand family through malaria, yellow fever, and all the "normal" communicable diseases. He survived drought, flash floods, locusts, snake bites, and attacks by wild animals and Matabele. He lost both herds and children. He travelled almost entirely on horseback and by ox wagon in as harsh and unforgiving a land as exists outside the pure deserts or high arctic. He spent a lifetime with animals both domestic and wild.
And throughout his wanderings, for as much as 35 years, his horses and cattle were protected by the ridged dogs he selectively breed and field trained end tested, primarily for their ability to challenge and harry lions, but also for their ability to track, bay and herd the wide variety of animals he both shot and captured. A map showing the locations of his bases and farms over the years is shown under. He is still the only man on the African continent credited with developing a new, internationally recognized breed of dog.
Van Rooyen saw Helm's pair of bitches and decided to breed his own dogs with them to incorporate their guarding abilities. It is not known if these two first direct ancestors of Rhodesian Ridgebacks had dorsal hair pattern ridges themselves, but they founded the Rhodesian Ridgeback bloodline, so either carried the trait or it was added from other Boer dogs and hybrids with Khoikhoi ridgebacks which van Rooyen bred into his lines over many trials then generations.
He used Pointers with the Khoikhoi crosses to improve speed and scenting power. Unsatisfied, he then used Airedales. Given the large numbers of Fox Terriers in the region, they also may have been used, although probably not by him because they were too small for his purposes. Certainly terriers of some sort were used at some point, given the well developed teeth of all Ridgebacks and instinctive ratting ability of some.
Still not satisfied, van Rooyen then used Collies and finally got what he wanted- ridged dogs with courage, speed, endurabce, scenting power, agility, cunning and instinctive hatred and respect of lions. As Halmi put it, the Collie crosses "could cold track... run like the wind, and to their ancestors´intelligence had been added a subtle new cunning at rounding up grazing animals. They retained the Hottentot (Khoikhoi dogs) instinct for hunting toghether in a silent pack."
They became the foundation stock of a kennel which developed dogs over the next 35 years with the ability to bay a lion by darting in and out but staying out of its reach until the hunter shot it. However, dogs that took risks were sometimes killed by lions, leaving those that were more careful to breed.These dogs were used to clear farmland of wild pigs and baboons, and they can kill a baboon independently of a human hunter's collaboration.
Cornelius Johannes van Rooyen is still the only man on the African continent credited with developing a new, internationally recognized breed of dog in the past known as “van Rooyen’s lion dogs”.
Charles Robert Edmonds was a veterinarian from England. He arrived in Bulawayo about 1900 and served as goverment veterinarian there for many years. He knew Van Rooyen and knew and took an interest in his dogs. Thus, when interest was shown in 1922 in obtaining official recognition for the breed, Edmond was well qualified to comment and more than willing to do so. In the February 7- 1923 edition of the Farmer´s weekly , he published an article he called " A Valuable hunting Breed of Unknown Origin: Strong Characteristics". This article contains what appears to be the first attempt by anyone to propose a written standard for the breed. Because Edmond knew the breed well, what he wrote makes for interesting reading.
A TYPICAL YEAR OLD LION DOG c. 1923 C.R. Edmonds, Farmer´s Weekly, February 7, 1923
Height - 24 inches at the shoulder
Weight - 60 lb
Colour - Tawny, fawn or brindle
Coat - short and hard
Tail - Longish and thick, free from feather and carried low
Two breeders have advised the writer that considerable difficulty is experienced in the tail as at times varying lengths of tail occur in the same litter, some being only six to seven inches long like a docked dog, others with a kink like a Bulldog and others with long tails as described. I would ascribe this to the possible introduction of foreign blood at some time.
Head - Rather broad, cheek muscles well developed. In shape resembles the old style of Bull Terrier
Muzzle - somewhat pointed
Ears - Low set
Eyes - Yellow, intelligent, with a bold, somewhat savage expression
Edmonds thus confirms van Rooyen´s statement in 1912 about bobbet tails. His specification of yellow eyes indicates perhaps either influence of the Khoikhoi dogs or the infusion of liver Pointers already noted. The height and weight he suggests indicate lean, agile animal. The coat and colour are, as Edmonds no doubt knew, ideal for camouflage and performance in the thorn and insect infested countrysideof Zimbabwe. Only the low set ears are suprising in view of the dog used at that time, although low set ears would be less prone to being ripped by tooth, claw, talon or thorn.
While Edmonds, so far as we know, was the first to propose a standard, another man would eventually write the standard which would become internationally accepted. His name was Francis Richard Barnes.
Francis R. Barnes occupies the most prominent place in RR history as the founder of the Parent Club in Rhodesia and was instrumental in the writing of the first breed standard in 1922-24. Barnes’ first ridged dogs were obtained from Graham Stacey’s Dewsbury pack. Stacey, in turn, had obtained his dogs from van Rooyen. Barnes was an experienced breeder as was his wife, having imported, bred and shown Pointers, Fox Terriers and Bulldogs.
Barnes was also the co-founder of the Salisbury Kennel Club and a member of the Bulawayo Agriculture Society.He bred his Ridgebacks under the Eskdale prefix, named for the farm where they lived. Francis Barnes took the lead in establishing what was basically just a ridged hunting dog to the breed now recognized as the Rhodesian Ridgeback. In 1927, Barnes' standard was approved by the South African Kennel Union with the name amended to Rhodesian Ridgeback.
Outside the subcontinent and internationally, the first Rhodesian Ridgebacks in Britain were shown by Mrs. Edward Foljambe in 1928.
In 1950, Mr. and Mrs. William H. O'Brien of Arizona brought six carefully selected Ridgebacks to the US from South Africa.
He and his wife and Margaret Lowthian of California began the process of getting the breed accepted by the American Kennel Club.
Similarly, in 1952, The Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of Great Britain was founded at Crufts to promote the breed around the United Kingdom to show judges, so a standard for the breed might be recognised.
In 1954 the first Challenge Certificates were awarded to dogs shown as Rhodesian Ridgebacks at United Kingdom competitions, toward their subsequent recognition by The Kennel Club of Great Britainand in 1955 the American Kennel Club recognised the Rhodesian Ridgeback breed as a member of the hound
For that, we are eternally grateful. Where did the ridge originate? No one knows for sure, but a plausible theory is that tribes living along the west coast had a lively trade with Asian sea-faring people. They had cattle, goats and sheep of Asian stock and it’s conceivable that their dogs and the trader’s dogs interbred. It is thought that the RR and the Thai Ridgeback are both related through an ancestor from the island of Phu Quoc, as both breeds share two genetic traits – ridges and the dermoid sinus.
Ridgebacks were general purpose farm dogs that became reknown because they were especially good at worrying a lion/keeping the lion’s attention so that the hunter could get in close enough to shoot the lion. The rifles, in those early days, were not the powerful guns of today and a hunter had to get quite close to make a kill. This called for an agile, athletic dog, not a big, heavy, bulky one.