Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Are Rhodesian Ridgebacks becoming too tall?

I think it is safe to say that Ridgeback breeders are breeding taller because judges are picking taller. We all know about the “famous sire syndrome” in regard to genetic disease. Well the same thing would hold true in regard to height. Whichever male wins the most prizes will be used the most as stud. If he is tall then his offspring will tend to be tall. One champion sire probably couldn’t do it, but if we are looking for culpability I nominate the judges. They’ve been up to this, so to speak, for a while.

But the egg (increased height) didn’t precede the chicken (judges picking increased height). It might seem to because the increased height had to be there for the judges to pick, but there has always been a range of size in Ridgebacks. I was in a discussion recently regarding “softening” in Ridgebacks and the consensus seemed to be that yes some are soft but, on the other hand, some – perhaps “most” aren’t and it has always been that way. Softness wouldn’t be seen by judges in the ring; so if it were becoming more prevalent then it had to be a breeder choice, and I suspect (despite the consensus) that the more aggressive dog that “should be able to do what it was originally bred for” is being bred out of the breed. It took some aggression to be a lion hunter. The original Lion Dog wasn’t a peaceful lapdog in all respects except lion hunting. He was a guard who kept hyenas, baboons and thieves out of the kraal. Would all of our soft Ridgebacks do that today? The consensus that didn’t quite convince me said yes.

As to height, we did touch on that a little – in a sense. I was considering “downsizing” the next time, meaning having just one Ridgeback and then a smaller breed rather than a second Ridgeback. I wasn’t thinking so much about height as about weight. One of my girls, Sage, is lean with rippling muscles. She probably would be good at coursing. I’ve seen Ginger chase her at the river and Sage can turn on a dime to get away. It is amazing to watch her. And yet at her last vet visit she weighed 87 pounds (and I'm guessing that the dancing Sage is about 26 inches at the withers and Ginger maybe an inch taller). I really can’t imagine a smaller Sage because Sage seems perfect just as she is. Anyway, walking my two girls is probably walking at least 180 pounds of Ridgeback. During that discussion, someone suggested that rather than get another smaller breed that I get a smaller Ridgeback. And by that she meant from a breeder that was breeding close to the original standard in size: 75 pound males and 65 pound females.

Now as to your taller dogs not doing well in a chase, I suspect that is more a question of conditioning (if there isn’t something structurally wrong with the “tall” dog). As soon as it cooled off last fall we began going down to the river almost every day. Sage would sometimes just stop when the larger Ginger would try to provoke her into a chase, but over time, when they had gotten days and days of running in, the situation changed. There was a time when the larger Ginger would tire before the end of our outing, but even that changed and they seemed equally confident, energetic and agile. If there was a lion down at the river, he couldn’t have caught them. Whether they would have chased him is another matter.

There was a time when more “size” was deliberately introduced into the breed according to a Canadian expert (whose name escapes me). The mastiff was used. Some British and Canadian judges prefer a more mastiffy look. Ginger has that a bit – not her head but her body. Although her head is much larger than Sage’s and she is “taller.” I don’t know what she weighs but surely more than Sage. But she is very quick and powerful. When she chases Sage at the river, she is quick enough to catch her unless Sage can get a head start and lengthens out. Would my two large females be able to chase lions? I would have said “no,” in the past because of their “softness,” but they chase coyotes and feral dogs at the river and have never shown fear, so maybe the consensus is right and I am wrong. It seems that way, but I’m still not convinced.

The question of size as a determining factor in regard to “what they were originally intended to do” is open to a little debate. The original Ridgeback standard was not created by a lion hunter. It was established by Francis Richard Barnes and some others in 1922: The chief, if not the sole, credit of getting the breed standardised and recognised by the S. A. Kennel Union, is due to Mr. F. R. Barnes of Figtree - then resident in Bulawayo. I think it was in 1922 that Mr. Barnes circularized the many owners of "Ridgeback" or 'Lion Dog", as they were beginning to be known, and asked owners to bring their dogs to the meeting to be held on the second day of the Bulawayo Kennel Club Show to endeavour to formulate a standard with the object of later recognition by the S. A. Kennel Union. The response must have been gratifying to the convenor. A large number of owners attended and well over 20 dogs were paraded. I attended by invitation. These dogs were of all types and size, from what would be regarded as an undersized Great Dane to a small Bull Terrier; all colours were represented - Reds and Brindles predominating -. The convenor addressed the gathering and there was general agreement that a club to further the interests of the breed be formed. Mr. Barnes then asked for suggestions as to the standard to be adopted. Owners were reluctant to come forward, each naturally thinking his the correct type. Finally a spectator with some knowledge of the breed took a dog and suggested that that size and configuration be adopted, then chose another specimen for its head and neck, a third for legs and feet, and, making use of some five different dogs, built up what he considered to be aimed at. A few days later Mr. Barnes compiled the standard, a club was formed, Mr. Barnes' standard adopted and this, with some later amendments and alterations is the standard in use today.”

Van Rooyan died in 1915 and may never have been interested in a “breed standard.” At least not “breed standard” in the sense we would use it today: ( )

After Van Rooyen "Nellis" had some dogs after Helms dogs, he had a great purpose to have a ridged dogs which could accompanied him and help him to hunt or guard and protect animals and people.

“First he used Pointers with the Khoikhoi crosses to improve speed and scenting power. Unsatisfied, he then used Airedales. According to Mrs. Wilde , nee van Rooyen, her father´s dogs were the colour of Irish Terriers. Given the large numbers of Fox Terriers in the region, they also may have been used, although probably not by Nellis because they were too small for his purposes. Certainly terriers of some sort were used at some point, given the well developed teeth of all Ridgebacks and instinctive ratting ability of some. Still not satisfied, van Rooyen then used Collies and finally got what he wanted- ridged dogs with courage, speed, endurance, scenting power, agility, cunning and instinctive hatred and respect of lions. As Halmi put it, the Collie crosses "could cold track... run like the wind, and to their ancestors´ intelligence had been added a subtle new cunning at rounding up grazing animals. They retained the Hottentot (Khoikhoi dogs´) instinct for hunting together in a silent pack." According to Wellings, Cornelius Jr. stated, that the best dog his father ever had was out of a Collie bitch.

“It seems that the principal crosses used with the Khoikhoi dogs were Greyhound, Bulldog and Pointer. But it´s known from Selous that in 1885 Nellis had a deerhound- like dog- in the other words a large, rough-coated Greyhound. The data also supports statements, that Nellis used Airedale and Irish Terriers and Collies. He also used the terriers and bulldogs -breeds which we know are certainly part of the Ridgeback gene pool. One might infer that Fox Terriers and Boarhounds (Great Danes) were also used at this time, but there is no direct evidence, that van Rooyen used those breeds.”

So what was the height and size of the dogs that did whatever it was they were “originally bred to do”? The answer is all sorts of heights and sizes. Height and size, and even “conformation” were not determining factors for Van Rooyan whose dogs did what “they were originally bred to do.” Barnes and others made all that up – at least in regard to size, height, and conformation.


Matthew said...

While it is true that dogs of every size, shape and variety were used by numerous white 19th and 20th century lion hunters in southern and eastern africa, Van Rooyen's dogs did eventually emerge into a *relatively* unique and uniform type. If you look at photos of the dogs he kept in his final years, you will see an assemblage of Ridgebacks that look incredibly similar to many of the Ridgebacks we see today.

With regard to Barnes, he was true dog man and his dogs were the real deal. Barnes pack was largely responsible for keeping a large group of men in venison on the trail.

As it relates to size, a reading of the written histories and photos from the 1910's to the 1930's reveals numerous complaints by the uninformed that the Rhodesian Lion dogs "were too small" for the liking of those who wanted large and/or fearsome dogs. Most notably, the first ever written description of the breed, the "farmer George" account written by a vet who had been observing the working Ridgeback for over 20 years, describes 60 lb males. Also notable, those whites in Mashonaland who were, as a group, the Ridgeback owners most actively engaged in lion hunting with the breed, tended to keep and prefer smaller Ridgebacks. In fact the minimum height was introduced into the early standard to end-run many of the men with working ridgebacks in the north preferred ridgebacks that trended towards 24" at the withers! Hard to imagine now.

Lawrence Helm said...

Matthew: See response at


Unknown said...

It might be a little off for some pet parents, but I’m really the type of pet owner who doesn’t care about breed standards. I just want them dogs to be healthy and to live a long happy life and that’s what matters to me. Rhodesian Ridgebacks are great dogs, and I own one that I’m not sure if it is physically acceptable against breed standards. Regardless, I love it! I’ll share the article that I read about this breed, and helped me go past through the challenges of being a Rhodesian Ridgeback owner: