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Nick Ridley, Animal Photography
Sally Anne Thompson, Animal Photography
The Rhodesian Ridgeback is easy to spot among a canine crowd: He’s the one with the tiny Mohawk running down his spine. Expressive eyes reflect the sensitive spirit of this large, intelligent dog who loves to run and play. He’s not a barker, but a Ridgie will protect his family.
Ridgebacks are also known as the African Lion Hound. Big-game hunters found that the dogs were good at distracting a lion, allowing the hunters to take a shot.
The Rhodesian Ridgeback takes his name from both the part of the world from which he originates and the distinctive hair that runs down his back. (Although if you’re counting on that ridge you may be disappointed: A lot of purebred Ridgebacks don’t have them!) A sleek and powerful dog, the Ridgeback has transitioned from African farm dog and hunter to popular companion dog in American homes of all types and sizes.
It’s hard to categorize the Rhodesian Ridgeback. He’s a big dog, weighing as much as 100 pounds. He’s a fast runner but needs surprisingly little exercise. He has a strong protective instinct, but he rarely barks, even when someone’s at the door. He will put his well-muscled body between his human family before barking, snarling, or attacking. He tends to get along not only with other dogs but also with cats he lives with. Though strange cats he spots outdoors, however, are still seen as prey.
The Ridgeback can be a child’s best friend, though a dog of this size and power can be too much for the smallest children. Most Ridgies can learn to modulate that power when they’re around toddlers, but it’s up to adults to make sure dog and child are safe together.
The Ridgeback is an easy-care dog. His smooth coat, which comes in shades of tan and red, sheds, but his grooming needs are minimal. A quick weekly brush and occasional bath, as well as regular nail trims and teeth brushing, are all he needs. Keep his hanging ears clean and dry, and seek veterinary attention for itching, redness or discharge, or if your dog is pawing at his ears or shaking his head.
Mature Ridgebacks love to run, hike, and play, but can get by with a romp in the backyard and a daily leash walk, with occasional trips to the park or beach. Young Ridgebacks and puppies need a lot of exercise, but they need it in safe places. The urge to chase is strong, and that impulse is likely to override any amount of training a young dog has had.
By the time he’s older, if you put the effort into training him to come when called, you may be able to give him a bit more freedom. Hounds are notoriously unreliable off-leash and although Ridgebacks might be a bit better than most, you shouldn’t try it unless you’ve trained your dog consistently from an early age and you are in an enclosed area such as your own yard or a dog park that allows off-leash activity. And training consistently is very important for these somewhat hard-headed dogs. People who aren’t familiar with hounds and who are used to similar-size bird dogs such as the Retrievers, will find training a rough road. Just keep lessons short and frequent, and your sense of humor high.
Rhodesian Ridgebacks love their human families and don’t do well as outdoor dogs. Life in a backyard is too boring for them, and they’ll entertain themselves by uprooting trees the size of a midlife redwood and scaling fences in a single bound.
Something else Ridgies love to do: Eat. There has never been enough food to convince a Ridgeback he’s full, and if allowed, he’ll literally eat himself sick. He’ll also happily eat himself fat, in which case, you’re going to be in charge of putting the world’s hungriest dog on a diet. Instead, give him plenty of exercise and practice portion control in order to spare your hound the pain and health risks that come with canine obesity.
In the early 18th century, the first European settlers in Africa encountered Khoikhoi peoples, who had dogs with an unusual characteristic: a ridge of hair along the spine. When the settlers wanted to develop an all-around dog who could hunt, guard livestock from predators, protect the family, and withstand the harsh and changeable South African climate, they began breeding their own dogs — Great Danes, Mastiffs, Greyhounds, Bloodhounds, and others — with the native dogs of the Khoikhoi.
The result was a shorthaired dog with the distinctive ridge and the courage to take on the king of beasts. The dogs became known as Rhodesian Ridgebacks, after the country (now known as Zimbabwe) where they were developed. Big-game hunters relied on them to distract lions, allowing the hunter to take a shot, and found that they also made good bird dogs. The Africa-savvy dogs were also tough enough and smart enough to avoid crocodiles and snakes.
The Ridgeback was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1955. Today he ranks 46th among the breeds registered by the AKC, up from 57th in 2000.
The Rhodesian Ridgeback has a quiet and even temperament — when he’s mature. Puppies are fun-loving, curious, and rambunctious. They can unwittingly knock over young children with their exuberant play, but they are good at heart and want only to be with their people.
Ridgebacks also would like very much to run things their own way and will test their boundaries at every opportunity. That includes hopping onto the bed and other furniture and making themselves comfortable. If it wasn’t your plan to allow the dog on the furniture, teach him at an early age to go to his own bed or blanket. The Ridgie understands “just this once” to mean “They’ll never enforce the rules. I can do whatever I want.”
The Ridgeback’s hound background means he is bred to think for himself. It also means he can be willful and stubborn. Ridgies will test everyone in the family to see what they can get away with and where they stand on the leadership ladder. This is a confident, independent, and intelligent dog. He needs an assertive owner who can train him appropriately while understanding that he is sensitive enough to wilt at the first sign of disapproval. Harsh physical or verbal reprimands should be avoided in any dog, including Ridgies.
Ridgebacks are usually aloof with strangers. Significant socialization during early puppyhood is necessary to offset this characteristic so that the Ridgeback’s natural tendency to protect doesn’t turn into aggression. With appropriate socialization, the Ridgeback is capable of making good decisions, and, when necessary, he will stand between you and danger and stare it down.
The Ridgeback can be aggressive toward dogs of the same sex. He can get along with cats if he is raised with them from puppyhood, but stray cats who cross his property won’t make that mistake twice.
Ridgebacks have lots of great qualities, but any dog, no matter how nice, can develop obnoxious levels of barking, digging, counter-surfing, and other undesirable behaviors if he is bored, untrained, or unsupervised. And any dog can be a trial to live with during adolescence, which can last until the dog is 3 years old.
Start training your Ridgeback puppy the day you bring him home. Even at 7 or 8 weeks old, he is capable of soaking up everything you can teach him. Do not wait until he is 6 months old to begin training, or you will have a much bigger, more headstrong dog to deal with. If possible, get him into puppy kindergarten class by the time he is 10 to 12 weeks old, and socialize, socialize, socialize. However, be aware that many puppy training classes require certain vaccines (like kennel cough) to be up to date, and many veterinarians recommend limited exposure to other dogs and public places until puppy vaccines (including rabies, distemper and parvovirus) have been completed. In lieu of formal training, you can begin training your puppy at home and socializing him among family and friends until puppy vaccines are completed.
Talk to breeders, describe exactly what you’re looking for in a dog, and ask for assistance in selecting a puppy. Breeders see the puppies daily and can make uncannily accurate recommendations once they know something about your lifestyle and personality.
The perfect Ridgeback doesn’t spring fully formed from the whelping box. He’s a product of his background and breeding. Whatever you want from a Ridgeback, look for one whose parents have nice personalities and who has been well socialized from early puppyhood.
All dogs have the potential to develop genetic health problems, just as all people have the potential to inherit a particular disease. Run, don't walk, from any breeder who does not offer a health guarantee on puppies, who tells you that the breed is 100 percent healthy and has no known problems, or who tells you that her puppies are isolated from the main part of the household for health reasons. A reputable breeder will be honest and open about health problems in the breed and the incidence with which they occur in her lines. The Ridgeback can develop certain health problems. Here’s a brief rundown on a few of the diseases you should know about.
RIdgies can develop hypothyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid gland doesn't produce enough thyroid hormone. Periodic testing is recommended, and affected dogs should not be bred.
Rhodesian Ridgebacks are prone to dermoid sinus, a tunnel-like opening between the skin and spinal column. This congenital defect causes neurologic signs, which can occur at any age. Surgery is the recommended treatment, and affected dogs should not be bred.
Ridgebacks are also one of the breeds who suffer from degenerative myelopathy, a degenerative spinal cord disease. Though rare, it is incurable and crippling. There is currently no genetic test for DM in the Ridgeback, although research is ongoing.
Ridgebacks are more likely than many breeds to bloat, a condition in which the stomach distends with gas and can twist on itself (called gastric torsion), cutting off blood flow. Bloat and torsion strikes very suddenly, and a dog who was fine one minute can be dead a few hours later. Watch for symptoms like restlessness and pacing, drooling, pale gums, lip licking, trying unsuccessfully to vomit, and signs of pain. Bloat requires immediate veterinary intervention, and surgery is necessary in many cases. Unfortunately, dogs that have bloated can bloat again, so most veterinarians offer a procedure known as gastropexy or "stomach tacking," which anchors the stomach to the body wall to help keep it from twisting in the future. This procedure can also be done as a preventive measure.
Ridgebacks can suffer from several kinds of cancer, most notably mast cell tumors. Hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia can also affect dogs of this breed, as well as eye problems including cataracts, progressive retinal atrophy, and entropion.
Not all of these conditions are detectable in a growing puppy, and it can be hard to predict whether an animal will be free of these maladies, which is why you must find a reputable breeder who is committed to breeding the healthiest animals possible. They should be able to produce independent certification that the parents of the dog (and grandparents, etc.) have been screened for these defects and deemed healthy for breeding. That’s where health registries come in.
The Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of the United States (RRCUS) participates in the Canine Health Information Center (CHIC), a health database. Before individual Ridgebacks can be included, the breeder must submit test results for these conditions: hip and elbow certifications from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) or PennHIP, thyroid certification with OFA, and certification from the Canine Eye Registry Foundation.
Breeders must agree to have all test results, positive or negative, published in the CHIC database. A dog need not receive good or even passing scores on the evaluations to obtain a CHIC number, so CHIC registration alone is not proof of soundness or absence of disease, but all test results are posted on the CHIC website and can be accessed by anyone who wants to check the health of a puppy’s parents.
If a breeder tells you she doesn’t need to do those tests because she’s never had problems in her lines, her dogs have been vet checked, or any of the other excuses bad breeders have for skimping on the genetic testing of their dogs, walk away immediately.
Careful breeders screen their breeding dogs for genetic disease and breed only the healthiest and best-looking specimens, but sometimes Mother Nature has other ideas and a puppy develops one of these diseases despite good breeding practices. Advances in veterinary medicine mean that in most cases the dogs can still live good lives. If you’re getting a puppy, ask the breeder about the ages of the dogs in her lines and what they died of.
Remember that after you’ve taken a new puppy into your home, you have the power to protect him from one of the most common health problems: obesity. Keeping a Ridgeback at an appropriate weight is one of the easier ways to extend his life. Make the most of diet and exercise to help ensure a healthier dog for life.
Ridgebacks have an easy-care short coat. A Ridgie will shed a bit all year long, but it’s not bad. Run a brush over his coat once a week, and bathe him when you think he needs it. Brush his teeth with a vet-approved pet toothpaste, clean his ears, and trim his nails regularly, and that’s it.
Whether you want to go with a breeder or get your dog from a shelter or rescue, here are some things to keep in mind.
Finding a good breeder is a great way to find the right puppy. A good breeder will match you with the right puppy and will, without question, have done all the health certifications necessary to screen out health problems as much as possible. She is more interested in placing pups in the right homes than making big bucks.
Good breeders will welcome your questions about temperament, health clearances, and what the dogs are like to live with, and come right back at you with questions of their own about what you’re looking for in a dog and what kind of life you can provide for him. A good breeder can tell you about the history of the breed, explain why one puppy is considered pet quality while another is not, and discuss what health problems affect the breed and the steps she takes take to avoid those problems.
Find a breeder who is a member in good standing of the Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of the United States and who has agreed to abide by its code of ethics, which calls for screening all breeding dogs for genetic diseases, refusing to sell puppies to or through pet stores, and taking back any dog sold at any time for any reason if the owner can’t keep him.
Avoid breeders who seem interested only in how quickly they can unload a puppy on you and whether your credit card will go through. You should also bear in mind that buying a puppy from a website that offers to ship your dog to you immediately can be a risky venture, as it leaves you no recourse if what you get isn’t exactly what you expected. Put at least as much effort into researching your puppy as you would into choosing a new car or expensive appliance. It will save you money in the long run.
Lots of reputable breeders have websites, so how can you tell who’s good and who’s not? Red flags include puppies always being available, multiple litters on the premises, having your choice of any puppy, and the ability to pay online with a credit card. Quickie online purchases are convenient, but they are almost never associated with reputable breeders.
Whether you’re planning to get your new best friend from a breeder, a pet store, or another source, don’t forget that old adage “let the buyer beware”. Disreputable breeders and facilities that deal with puppy mills can be hard to distinguish from reliable operations. There’s no 100% guaranteed way to make sure you’ll never purchase a sick puppy, but researching the breed (so you know what to expect), checking out the facility (to identify unhealthy conditions or sick animals), and asking the right questions can reduce the chances of heading into a disastrous situation. And don’t forget to ask your veterinarian, who can often refer you to a reputable breeder, breed rescue organization, or other reliable source for healthy puppies.
The cost of a Ridgeback puppy varies depending on his place of origin, whether he is male or female, what titles his parents have, and whether he is best suited for the show ring or a pet home. The puppy you buy should have been raised in a clean home environment, from parents with health clearances and conformation (show) and, ideally, working or versatility certificates to prove that they are good specimens of the breed. Puppies should be temperament tested, vetted, dewormed, and socialized to give them a healthy, confident start in life.
Before you decide to buy a puppy, consider whether an adult Ridgeback might better suit your needs and lifestyle. Puppies are loads of fun, but they require a lot of time and effort before they grow up to become the dog of your dreams. An adult Ridgeback may already have some training and will probably be less active, destructive and demanding than a puppy. Some of the health problems in Ridgebacks aren’t apparent in puppyhood but become apparent when the dog is older. With an adult, you know more about what you’re getting in terms of personality and health and you can find adults through breeders or shelters. If you are interested in acquiring an older dog through breeders, ask them about purchasing a retired show dog or if they know of an adult dog who needs a new home. If you want to adopt a dog, read the advice below on how to do that.
There are many great options available if you want to adopt a dog from an animal shelter or breed rescue organization. Here is how to get started.
1. Use the Web
Sites like Petfinder.com and Adopt-a-Pet.com can have you searching for a Rhodesian Ridgeback in your area in no time flat. The site allows you to be very specific in your requests (housetraining status, for example) or very general (all the Rhodesian Ridgebacks available on Petfinder across the country). AnimalShelter can help you find animal rescue groups in your area. Also some local newspapers have “pets looking for homes” sections you can review.
Social media is another great way to find a dog. Post on your Facebook page that you are looking for a specific breed so that your entire community can be your eyes and ears.
2. Reach Out to Local Experts
Start talking with all the pet pros in your area about your desire for a Rhodesian Ridgeback. That includes vets, dog walkers, and groomers. When someone has to make the tough decision to give up a dog, that person will often ask her own trusted network for recommendations.
3. Talk to Breed Rescue
Most people who love Rhodesian Ridgebacks love all Rhodesian Ridgebacks. That’s why breed clubs have rescue organizations devoted to taking care of homeless dogs. The Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of the United States can help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. You can also search online for other Rhodesian Ridgeback rescues in your area.
The great thing about breed rescue groups is that they tend to be very upfront about any health conditions the dogs may have and are a valuable resource for advice. They also often offer fostering opportunities so, with training, you could bring a Rhodesian Ridgeback home for a trial to see what the experience is like.
4. Key Questions to Ask
You now know the things to discuss with a breeder, but there are also questions you should discuss with shelter or rescue group staff or volunteers before you bring home a pup. These include:
What is his energy level?
How is he around other animals?
How does he respond to shelter workers, visitors, and children?
What is his personality like?
What is his age?
Is he housetrained?
Has he ever bitten or hurt anyone that they know of?
Are there any known health issues?
Wherever you acquire your Rhodesian Ridgeback, make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter, or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. Petfinder offers an Adopters Bill of Rights that helps you understand what you can consider normal and appropriate when you get a dog from a shelter. In states with “puppy lemon laws,” be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.
Puppy or adult, a breeder purchase or a rescue, take your Rhodesian Ridgeback to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot problems and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues.
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