The first known evidence of dogs with ridges on their backs in South Africa is in the form of an illustration in the book “Missionary Travels in South Africa” from 1857, by the known explorer David Livingstone. Some sixty or so years later, a written description was found in Canadian historian George McCall Theal’s book “The Yellow and Dark-Skinned People of Africa South of the Zambezi” written in 1910, describing the circumstances in South Africa before 1505.
But the Rhodesian Ridgeback were in the making long before that.
The breed originates all the way back to when European explorers landed in Africa in the 17th century. They had brought their own dogs who unfortunately proved to be unsuited for the excessive heat, the lack of water and the rough environment. Among those breeds were Mastiffs, Great Danes, Bloodhounds, Pointers, Staghounds and Greyhounds. The settlers needed a dog to protect them and to use in hunting, and when their dog began crossbreeding with native dogs who accompanied the Khoikhoi people (Hottentotts), a dog who suited their needs began to evolve.
It wasn’t until the midst of the 19th century, however, as the work towards creating the breed as we know it today, began. The European presence expanded in the area called Matabeleland, later known as Southrhodesia (Zimbabwe). The people who came from Europe were hunters, traders and missionaries, and with them came their dogs who were used not only for company, but also guardians, protectors and hunters during the long, often dangerous transportations in rough environments. Persistence, loyalty, courage and survival instincts were qualities these dogs needed to survive.
The offspring of the dogs that had been brought to Africa couple of hundred years earlier were far better equipped to endure the African conditions than the new European imports. The European dogs were inevitably breeding with various mutts during transfers over the lands. These dogs were called “Boer dogs” and were soon a common sight in the African landscape. Among these “Boer dogs” were various types; Steekbard which was the most usual, but there were also Vuil-baard, Wa-hond, Maanhaar and Veerkherde-haar. None of these were ever developed as separate breeds.
Charles Helm was a missionary in Matabeleland who came to live at the missionary station “Hope Fountain Mission” close to Bulawayo in 1875. He brought two female Steekbard dogs named Lorna and Powder, said to have had ridges on their backs.
One to visit the Hope Fountain Mission, which was a place for rest and recovery for travellers, was the big game hunter Cornelius van Rooyen who happened to be a good friend of Charles Helm. Van Rooyen originally came from Uitenhaag outside Port Elizabeth in South Africa. He lived with his wife and children on the farm Weltevreden where he during summer ran a small farm. During winter, however, he left the farm to go on long hunting expeditions where he hunted large game such as lions, elephants, giraffes and many others. He used a large pack of dogs to assist in the hunt, and among these were Greyhounds, Irish terrier, English Pointer, longhaired Collies and Grand Danois, plus a number of crossbreeds. These dogs main job where to help hunt, but also to guard and protect the campsites from wild animals and unwanted guests.
Charles Helm and Cornelius van Rooyen are the two people who are behind the Rhodesian Ridgeback. The two females Lorna and Powder were bred with dogs from van Rooyen’s pack of hunting dogs, and the result were dogs who performed extremely well as hunting dogs, especially of lions. They had the courage, the independence, intelligence, mobility and perseverance required for hunting in these widespread lands where only the strongest survive. It is said that van Rooyen kept one puppy from each litter to improve his own pack of hunting dogs. At that time, it’s unlikely that he cared much for the ridge on their backs, but his selection would rather have been focused on hunting qualities. However; his work didn’t go unnoticed, and his dogs were soon known as the “Van Rooyen’s lion dogs”.
Five years before van Rooyen died, English postmaster Francis Barnes, moved to Figtree few miles outside of Bulawayo. He was very interested in dogs, and had previously been breeding English Pointer. He got himself three of these Lion dogs, and it didn’t take too long until he engaged himself in creating the very first Rhodesian Ridgeback Club in 1922. Barnes was chosen to its first chairman, and together with veterinarian C G Edmonds he also created the first breed standard which was based on the Dalmatian standard.
At the Bulawayo Dog Show the same year, some twenty or so Ridgebacks were gathered and judged by allround judge B.W Durham, who chose dogs who illustrated exterior details from Barnes newly written standard.
The breed was accepted by the South African Kennel Club in 1924, as Rhodesian Ridgeback.
The Rhodesian Ridgeback can be found all over the world today. It was in the 1920s that they were exported, and the first dog to reach Great Britain was in 1914, even before the breed was official. The next export went to Great Britain in 1927, but it wasn’t until after WWII that the breed became more known. Since then, the Ridgeback has found its way around the world and is very popular everywhere.