Throughout recorded history, crusaders and explorers, merchants and refugees survived their journeys, in part because of the domesticated animals that accompanied them.

Horses, cattle and sheep were essential for sustaining vast armies that set out to explore and conquer the known world. Of course, no animal has been as devoted a traveling companion as the dog.

As the earliest domesticated animal, dogs played a crucial role in the development of human settlements. From the Arctic Circle to the islands of the Pacific Ocean, primitive dogs wandered alongside men and women wherever they went, acting as herder, hunter, guard and even baby sitter.

The development of our modern breeds is linked directly to these migrations. Once people became established in a specific location, individual cultures evolved and so did the dogs on which the settlers increasingly grew to depend.

In the 17th century, Europeans began to settle in the Cape of Africa and by the mid-1800s missionaries, miners and hunters were expanding into the continent’s interior. By the turn of the last century, permanent settlements were established linking vast farmlands, and dogs were needed to perform many and varied functions that could ensure the settlers’ survival.

The pioneers who made the trek into the interior brought with them large numbers of dogs of various breeds. Pointers, Setters, Bloodhounds, Greyhounds, Deerhounds, Mastiffs, Great Danes, Terriers, Bulldogs and Collies are just some of the purebreds that served as guards or assisted in securing meals for the table.

Along the routes established by these early migrants, native dogs of the local people were often encountered. Known as Hottentot dogs, explorers described them as jackal-like in appearance, with a peculiar ridge of hair growing forward along the spine. These faithful companions bred randomly with the European breeds and eventually an entirely new type of dog began to emerge. These crossbred animals proved themselves to be better suited to the harsh environment than any of the imported breeds.

In the interior, dogs were valued for their ability to hunt and protect, and some of the most capable carried the native dogs’ reverse ridge of hair. Ridged dogs possessed the stamina and courage necessary to survive out in the open and had the good sense to know when to be bold in pursuit of game and when to err on the side of caution.

By the 1920s, the favored dog of the settlers became officially known for its place of origin as well as for its birthmark: the Rhodesian Ridgeback. The product of intentional crossbreeding as well as natural selection, the breed we know today emerged under the harshest of circumstances just as Victorian era dog breeders became organized.

Word of the “African Lion Dog” spread, and the new breed quickly captivated dog fanciers from Europe and Britain to North America and Australia.

The Rhodesian Ridgeback is best known for the reverse ridge of hair growing along its spine. Photo by Isselee/

Handsome Is As Handsome Does

“A mature Ridgeback is a handsome, upstanding and athletic dog,” according to the General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard. Its ability to thrive in an unforgiving environment was due in part to a form that is without exaggeration – ridge of hair not withstanding. The breed is both strong and active, with a muscular appearance, and has the ability to move with a good deal of speed when necessary.

When the first breed standard was written in 1922, it was based on the approved Dalmatian standard of the day. Both breeds share a general balance of outline, although the Ridgeback is slightly longer in length than in height. Unremarkable in form, both breeds are built to move with efficiency at the trot and are capable of great endurance when on the move.

The outline of the breed is one of symmetry. Each part of the Ridgeback is in perfect balance with the next, creating a silhouette that is well-proportioned and in harmony. Dogs may be 25 to 27 inches at the shoulder and bitches 24 to 26 inches. Weight varies from an ideal of 85 pounds in males to 70 pounds for females.

Vigorous on the chase and dependable in the home, the Ridgeback impresses with its physical strength and unspoiled natural beauty, not with its size.

The Rhodesian Ridgeback owes its attractiveness to an exterior that is basic and balanced. A natural athlete, the breed looks the part of – and indeed it is – a talented competitor thanks to a harmonious balance between elegance and power.

Over the Ridge

The hallmark of the Rhodesian Ridgeback is the namesake growth of hair that runs along its spine. The breed is one of only three modern dogs that possess a trademark ridge. However, unlike the Thai Ridgeback and the Phu Quoc Ridgeback of South Vietnam, the hair formation along the African dog’s back has been standardized to a greater degree.

Beginning just behind the shoulders, the hair grows in the opposite direction to the rest of the coat in a clearly defined shape. The contour of the ridge consists of “two identical crowns (whorls) directly opposite each other,” as described in the Ridge section of the standard. The upper edges of the crowns come together to form a fan, while the lower edges should not extend down the ridge a distance exceeding one-third the entire length of the ridge.

Tapering from the crowns, or whorls, toward a point “between the prominence of the hips,” the ridge should be completely symmetrical along its entire length. The width of the ridge is of little consequence and can vary considerably from dog to dog.

Several anomalies of the ridge may be present, including an undesirably short length and asymmetrical or slightly offset (not directly opposite) crowns. A single crown is a serious fault, as are more than two crowns. Faulty crowns can appear anywhere along the length of the ridge and, like the ridge itself, are clearly evident at birth.

Dogs without a ridge are to be disqualified from the conformation ring.

Whole Wheaten

The coat of the Rhodesian Ridgeback is short and dense over the entire body. Its appearance is sleek and glossy, although the texture is neither wooly nor silky. Virtually without odor, the breed’s coat sheds regularly, but requires little in the way of maintenance.

As described by the Color section of the breed standard, Ridgebacks are “light wheaten to red wheaten” in color with “a little white on the chest and toes permissible but excessive white there, on the belly or above the toes is undesirable.”

Acceptable variations of wheaten range from a light buff color to gold and red. The parent club’s Elaborated Standard describes the hair of the Rhodesian Ridgeback as “banded, lighter at the base, darker at the tip.” This banding – sometimes referred to as agouti – varies over the body and may be expressed as lighter areas over the shoulder blades, sides of the neck and on the back of the hind legs.

Ridgebacks may be “clear-faced” or display black hairs over the muzzle and ears as well as around both eyes. The Elaborated Standard indicates that black “should not continue as a solid mask over the eyes.” Likewise, excessive black hairs throughout the coat are undesirable, as are dark brown hairs on the coat of a liver or brown-nosed dog.

The early progenitors of today’s dogs were seen in a variety of colors and patterns, including brindle and black and tan. Though occasionally expressed even today, they are entirely incorrect for the breed.

White hair on the breed has been the subject of much debate over the years. The Elaborated Standard is clear in its position. “Our standard does not condemn white,” writes the experienced group of breeder-authors. “Some white is permissible, and excessive white is not desirable. Small socks and white on the chest on an otherwise typey, sound dog should not eliminate him from consideration.”

The modern Rhodesian Ridgeback is appreciated for its power and symmetry as well as its signature cowlick. From the open expanse of Southern Africa, the hound of the early pioneers and big game hunters has been refined to fit comfortably into homes throughout the Western world.