by   David Hancock

When working briefly in Kenya half a century ago, I was greatly impressed by two Ridgebacks used by a local European farmer as par force hunting dogs on small deer; one was deep red, the other light wheaten, a coat colour I’ve never seen in the show ring. At the very first Ridgeback shows in South Africa and Rhodesia the prevalent coat colour was a smudgy beige, with yellow and near-white also featuring. There was mention too of black ones and brindles, never seen now, perhaps because the reds were usually the outstanding specimens both in the hunt and in the ring. Comparable ridges on the backs of dogs have manifested themselves in Weimaraners and a purebred Labrador. Many fawn dogs of mastiff type, as well as Bulldogs and Boxers with red in their coats, have been known to display spinal markings of darker colouration and on hair with a different texture. A few years ago, in New Zealand, two purebred Mastiffs went through quarantine there, each featuring a ridge of reverse hair along their spines. This distinctive feature is however the hallmark of the African and Thailand breeds, with Rhodesian Ridgebacks respected all over the world for their hardiness and character. They may not used as running mastiffs in the classic manner any more but their service to the early settlers, especially the hunter-farmers, was invaluable. A medieval master huntsman like Gaston de Foix would have admired them; they evolved in a tough environment and developed in a tougher school. We must now perpetuate them as famous African hunters designed them to be: hugely capable par force hounds, true running mastiffs.     

Hunting 'at force', using par force hounds that used sight and scent in the chase has long given way in Britain to 'hunting cunning', in which the slower unravelling of scent by hounds is favoured. But in Britain we did once use 'full-mouth' hounds, heavy-headed hounds with shorter muzzles, and 'fleethounds', which went too fast even for the most speedy steeplechaser. In the colonies, however, the early settlers had a need for hound-like dogs which could hunt at speed, using sight and scent. In India, for example, local breeds were utilised, like the powerful Sindh hound, the swift Rampur hound, the Poligar, the Vaghari hound, the Pashmi hound and the strongly-built Rajapalayan dog. Big game such as boar, bear and lions demanded exceoptional hounds, with some of the smaller quarry being the more dangerous. In his Hunting Big Game in Africa with Dogs of 1924, the American sportsman, Er M Shelley, wrote: "Dogs are very fond of hunting them (i.e. wart-hogs), but it usually proves disastrous for the dog, for these hogs have two long tusks that protrude far out from the lower jaw, and they use them with deadly effect. Dogs can be maimed or killed much more readily by hunting these hogs than by hunting lions." The early settlers in remote areas of southern Africa faced enormous dangers when hunting for food or protecting their stock. The value to them of brave, determined, powerful dogs is inestimable.

In southern Africa, settlers blended the blood of native dogs like the I-Baku, I-Twini, I-Bansi and Sica dogs with imported breeds like the Pointer, the Bull Terrier, the Irish Wolfhound, the Foxhound and possibly Dutch breeds like the Nederlandse Steenbrak. Some of the native dogs carried a ridge of reverse hair, roughly in a fiddle shape, along their spine. The Kalahari San were seen in south-eastern Angola forty years ago with ridged hunting dogs. The Khoi were recorded as far back as 1719 as owning hounds 18" at the shoulder, with a sharp muzzle, pointed ears, with a body like a jackal and a ridge or mane of hair turned forward on the spine and neck. The evolution of the Rhodesian Ridgeback is worth a close look; it exemplifies how human need led to hounds developing along definite functional lines. Unlike the evolution of much older breeds or types, it occurred during recorded history and the records demonstrate how a perceived function designed the breed.

Renowned South African hunters such as Petrous Jacobs, Fred Selous and Cornelius van Rooyen, who bought his first 'lion dogs' from the Rev Helm, developed their 'running mastiff' in the Matabele and Mashona territories of southern Africa, using them as a small pack of four or five to catch pig, to pull down wounded bucks, to worry lions and to track the blood trails of wounded game. Many of these dogs were killed by crocodiles and snakes, as well as by lions. Such dogs had to have pace, power, courage, determination and remarkable agility. A type gradually developed with immense stamina and impressive robustness, severely tested by both climate and terrain, but mainly by very dangerous quarry.

Kobben, who arrived in the Cape only half a century after the first settlers under Jan van Riebeeck (1652), noted that the Hottentots used dogs for hunting and protection and that Europeans made regular use of such dogs. Lawrence Green, in his Lords of the Last Frontier (1936) described the bushmen hunting dog as "a light brown ridgeback mongrel...ready to keep a wounded leopard at bay until the master finds an opening for his spear." The ancient Greeks would have admired that. Forty years ago, a game warden reported bushmen's hunting dogs in South West Africa sporting prominent ridges. It’s of interest that, at the Rhodesian Ridgeback World Congress 2000, Scottie Stewart, the South African delegate, gave a presentation of the work of the contemporary breed in the Kruger Game Reserve, working with rangers to warn them of any danger from approaching ‘big beasts’; not one of them fitted the modern breed standard obeyed in the show ring.

Accounts of dogs owned by early Boer farmers embrace breeds such as Bloodhounds (including an African variation), Greyhounds, Bulldogs, Mastiffs, Foxhounds, Pointers, Bull Terriers and Airedales. The Bloodhound was crossed with other hound breeds to make it leaner and faster. 'Steekbaards', rough-coated dogs, hinting at Deerhound, Irish Wolfhound, Airedale and continental griffon blood, were favoured by many Boer hunters. Van Rooyen had one, which was killed by a sable antelope. A writer to the Cape Times once gave important clues as to the make-up of these big resolute hunting dogs used by farmers in the bush. The writer stated that when he was a boy (around 1887) his father, like nearly every farmer, kept steekbaard (stiff beard) or vuilbaard (dirty beard)-honde, the size of Greyhounds. The first ridged pups he ever saw, born on his father's farm, were out of a purebred English Bulldog bitch, by a steekbaard sire. All had a distinct ridge of hair along their spines. The sire was a descendant of steekbaard dogs brought from Swellendam, when the trek to the Colesburg district took place. Steekbaards were sometimes advertised as Boerhounds (as distinct from Boerbulls or Boerboels) and occasionally as 'lion dogs'.

Pioneer farmers needed powerful, determined dogs which would stand their ground when faced by predators such as marauding lions, leopards, wild dogs, jackals, hyenas, baboons, even human rustlers; this demanded the characteristics of the holding dogs, the famed mastiff group, and led to the development of Boerboel type dogs. Farmers also needed faster but equally determined dogs to hunt, running mastiffs by inclination, leading to the development of Boerhounds or lion dogs. In that climate and terrain, against such enemies, only the most virile dogs survived. One writer described the hounds used by farmers as rough-haired Greyhounds. The hunter-writer William Baldwin, in his African Hunting from 1852-1860, of1877, described the hunting dogs he preferred: "bull and greyhound, with a dash of the pointer, the best breed possible." A later book of his was illustrated with a drawing of a 'ridged European dog'.

Inspired by Baldwin's book, a hunter called Frederick Courteney Selous travelled extensively until the 1890s, covering most of southern Africa. Later he hunted with van Rooyen, accounts of their dogs mentioning, again and again, rough-haired Greyhounds, Pointers (prized not only for their noses but for the robustness of their feet) and mongrels between these breeds and local dogs. The Bulawayo Chronicle contained the following references to breeds of dog in the period 1894-1917: Pointer (87), Bull Terrier (25), Greyhound (20), Bulldog (19), Airedale (15), Great Dane (14), Boarhound (11) and Deerhound (10). (Source: David Helgesen, 1982). Also mentioned were a Cuban Mastiff, a Kangaroo Hound and a 'Ridgeback'.

Selous is forever mentioned by Ridgeback historians but I remain to be convinced about his standing as a hunter with dogs. His book, A Hunter's Wanderings in Africa of 1881, is made up of over 450 pages, more or less his hunting diary of the previous few years. In it he hardly mentions hunting with dogs. He refers to being a guest of the Rev CD Helm, (from whom Van Rooyen bought his dogs), without mentioning his dogs. In his hunting exploits of 1876, he records: "...our mongrel pack. At the mere scent of the lion all but two rushed precipitately past us, not forwards, but backwards, with their tails between their legs, some of them yelping with fright; nor did they put in an appearance again until the hunt was over." He doesn't come across as a dogman at all.  

The first printed use of the word ridgeback for a breed was in a newspaper advertisement of 1912, offering 'Well bred 'Ridgeback' hunting pups for sale.' An English vet, working in Bulawayo, Charles Edmonds, took an interest in these 'ridged lion hunters', as he called them, and suggested classes for them at dog shows, based on a description of: Height 24", weight 60lbs, colour tawny, fawn or brindle, coat short and hard, head rather broad, cheek muscles well developed, in the shape of the old Bull Terrier. That is a fair summary of the phenotype of any prototypal running mastiff. It is interesting to note that in his book Hunting Big Game in Africa with Dogs of 1924, mentioned above, Shelley observes on jackal hunting: "There was a smooth-coated red dog in the bunch named 'Red' that did most of the catching. He was faster than the others and had a good nose."

Another Englishman, Francis Barnes, settled in Salisbury in 1875 and became interested in the breed. He wrote to the national kennel club in 1925, stating that a breed club had been formed for the Rhodesian Ridgeback (Lion Dog) Club. Another Salisbury resident, BW Durham, a Bulldog exhibitor, helped Barnes to produce a breed standard and get the new breed recognised. In 1926, the South African Kennel Union recognised the breed. The Rhodesian Ridgeback is now recognised across the globe, gaining championship status in Britain in 1954 and admission to the American Kennel Club registry in 1955. The British KC correctly places the breed in its Hound Group, something it denies to the Great Dane. I have heard it argued that the breed's ridgeback is a guarantee of pure breeding, yet I have seen ridge-less dogs from purebred stock. I have also seen ridged dogs that have displayed past ingredients in the breed's make-up, with mastiff-signs and brindle coats. The Rhodesian Ridgeback blood does come through strongly in hybrids, indicating the ingredients very starkly. 

A few years ago, I was very taken with the breathtaking movement of a Crufts exhibit: Ch. Gunthwaite Midnite Preacha. I have long been impressed by Swedish hound breeders and that includes the Ridgebacks of Sonja Nilsson, who produces hounds like field tracking champion Roseridge Rusticana, the dam of several other tracking champions. It was interesting to listen to Lorraine Hulbert, a very successful American breeder from the mid 1950s up to her death in 1976, about her hounds; she called them ‘brown Dalmatians’, seeing many similarities between the two breeds. She pointed out that the original standard for the Ridgeback was based, almost word for word, on the Dalmatian standard, and indication to me of the hound identity of the latter. Their past function would have led to their design in words. Hounds that hunted lions should have earned our respect. They could still be of value in conserving them too. As Southern Africa becomes more populated and native breeds put under greater pressure, specialist hounds, like Ridgbacks, may well have an important role to play.