It’s hard to get more literal than the Rhodesian ridgeback: a dog with a ridge of hair that extends down their spine. But beyond the hairstyle, the ridgeback is an independent, strong, and faithful breed. These medium- to large-sized powerful African hounds were originally bred to protect their families and distract lions. The Rhodesian ridgeback is known for their independent personality and strong will, which can make it difficult for the novice owner to handle. Read on to learn more about the Rhodesian ridgeback.
Once known as the African lion hound, the Rhodesian ridgeback hails from southern Africa. Male dogs will weigh around 85 pounds while female ridgebacks come in around 70 pounds, according to the American Kennel Club. The line of hair growing the opposite direction down their spines—almost a mohawk—puts the “ridge” in “ridgeback.”
This powerful, no-frills breed has a short, low-maintenance coat that comes in shades of one color only: wheaten. Some Rhodesian ridgebacks have black masks or white markings on their chest and toes, the AKC says. They can have black or brown noses and always have kind, intelligent eyes in shades of amber or brown.
Rhodesian ridgebacks are known for their dignified and strong-willed personality, which requires a lot of guidance from a strong, experienced, and patient owner. When well trained and cared for, Rhodesian ridgebacks are incredibly faithful and affectionate with their owner, but they will usually tend to be aloof toward strangers.
“Rhodesian ridgebacks are not for a novice owner,” says Brian Kilcommons, founder of the Great Pets Resort, a boutique training facility in Connecticut. “These dogs were bred to track lions and hold them at bay, and they’re fast enough that the cat can’t get them. They’re a hound, they’re hunters, so they’re going to be predatory. When they see movement, they’re going to want to chase, and a Rhodesian is way too big to be out of control.”
Though an intelligent breed, the Rhodesian ridgeback’s independence can make training tricky. It’s important to begin training your Rhodesian ridgeback immediately—as soon as you bring them home—using a positive-reinforcement method, VetStreet says. Enrolling in a puppy class can be a great way to add socialization—and distractions—to your training routine.
As with any breed, it’s important to properly socialize your Rhodesian ridgeback from a young age. Exposing your dogs to various sights, sounds, people, and animals will help them grow up to be a well-adjusted and confident adult. “The temperament varies in this breed, and fear can be more of a problem. It’s important to meet the parents to get a better sense of how the puppy will grow up,” Kilcommons says.
Though extremely protective of those they love, adult Rhodesian ridgebacks usually aren’t overly aggressive, assuming they’ve been socialized from a young age. They are patient and kind with kids, but smaller children run the risk of being knocked over if the ridgeback gets too rambunctious. It’s important to teach children how to properly interact with dogs and always supervise them when playing with any dog.
Rhodesian ridgebacks can be too much hound for a lot of people to handle. Bred to hunt, they have a very high prey drive and should always be kept on leash or in a secure fenced-in area. Though considered a high-energy breed, the Rhodesian ridgeback is fairly adaptable to most living situations—including apartments—so long as they get out enough for a moderate amount of exercise. “Having the time to properly exercise a Rhodesian is key,” Kilcommons says. “They’re very active and can be destructive if they aren’t exercised or entertained.”
They make great hiking and running partners, but they are just as satisfied with a long walk followed by a rigorous play session with their owners. They are extremely faithful and rely on a strong companion bond.
The ideal home for a Rhodesian ridgeback has a large, physically fenced-in yard where the dog would be the only pet. Though they can be brought up to get along with other dogs, small animals—such as cats—will most likely be seen as prey.
Their strong personalities and independent will can test even the most experienced dog owners, and Rhodesians need mental stimulation to be happy. Their best partner: an experienced owner looking for an active companion to join them through their daily lives. “I don’t think I’ve ever recommended a Rhodesian for a client. They’re large and they’re a hound, so it takes more expertise to train them,” Kilcommons says. It’s important to consider your lifestyle before committing to any dog. Talk to a Rhodesian ridgeback breeder or rescue group about expectations to see if a Rhodesian ridgeback is a good fit for you.
Rhodesian ridgebacks are low maintenance when it comes to grooming, the AKC says. Their short coats require simple weekly brushing to remove loose dead hair and keep a healthy shine, but they won’t need more than an occasional bath. Some Rhodesian ridgebacks can be sensitive to—and resist—grooming, especially nail trimming. It’s important to start weekly grooming practices at a young age, which will help your dog become comfortable when handled. Nails should be trimmed if you can hear them tapping against the floor. If your Rhodesian ridgebacks resists nail clippers, a nail grinder may have better results.
Regular brushing is also a good time to check for things like coat sheen (dull hair can mean a lack of nutrients in diet), nail length, and ear and dental health. Ear canals should be pale pink with very little—and fairly odorless—wax. Be sure to look for any signs of movement (mites!) and foreign objects in the canal, especially if you and your dog spend a lot of time outdoors or have recently been in tall grasses. This guide gives a thorough home health check-list full of how-tos, but remember, this doesn’t replace a visit to the vet. Always reach out to your vet with any concerns.
Rhodesian ridgebacks are intelligent and independent thinkers, which unchecked can lead to a domineering personality. It’s important to begin obedience training as early as possible to establish a workable relationship.
“Training is a process, not a result. I’ve had some clients get a breed I normally wouldn’t have suggested. But they’ve done their reading, they’ve done their homework, they’ve followed instructions and it works out great,” Kilcommons says. “There are other people who just blame the dog being difficult. Dogs learn by their interactions with us. Day-to-day, we have plenty of opportunities to teach the dog what we want it to do. We communicate with words, so our initial praise is usually cursory—they’re not going to react to that. They read our facial expressions. You have to smile, you have to praise enthusiastically, and you have to mean it.”
The Rhodesian ridgeback is considered a generally healthy breed with a lifespan around 10 years. Like all breeds, the Rhodesian ridgeback is prone to certain diseases. The Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of the United States, the official breed club, requires breeders complete hip and elbow evaluations. The club also strongly recommends additional testing for thyroid and heart conditions and eye anomalies.
VetStreet says Rhodesians, like other large dogs, are also susceptible to bloat, when dogs’ stomachs swell and twist or flip, cutting off blood flow to other organs. Luckily, it can be prevented through a procedure that “tacks” the stomach to your dog’s body, keeping it in place.
Not all Rhodesian ridgebacks will encounter serious health issues, but it’s important to be aware of these common concerns when considering this breed. It’s important to purchase all dogs from reputable breeders who will introduce you to the dog’s parents and siblings. If adopting, ask the rescue for all available health history.
Rhodesian ridgebacks can have a defect called dermoid sinus, which typically requires surgical intervention. The condition is sometimes present at birth, and reputable breeders will be able to feel for it.
Once known as the African lion hound, the Rhodesian ridgeback was in fact once bred to hunt lions, though it was never employed in the kill. According to the AKC, the dogs would confront lions and distract them to give the hunter time to fire his weapon. But that’s not where this breed’s history begins. In the 16th and 17th centuries, European settlers arrived in southern Africa with their dogs—mastiffs, Great Danes, bloodhounds, and greyhounds. Ill-suited for the drastic temperatures, scarce water, and rough brush, the settlers began breeding their imports with the native Khoikhoi dog, a tribal hunting dog known for the ridge lining its back, the AKC says. The result was a strong, fast, intelligent dog who made an excellent hunter and even better protector of the family.
The Rhodesian ridgeback was standardized as we know it today by a group of breeders in Zimbabwe in 1922. The breed remained elusive in the United States, and didn’t gain popularity until after World War II. Today, Rhodesian ridgebacks are known to be loyal and loving family dogs. It is still a popular breed in its native South Africa, but more rare stateside. As of 2019, the Rhodesian ridgeback was the AKC’s 42nd most popular breed.