Called the African Lion Dog, the Rhodesian Ridgeback’s history is closely intertwined with that of Southern Africa and lions, giving rise to the popular idea of packs of Ridgebacks tearing apart the ferocious big cats.
Like all good stories, the myth of lion-hunting red hounds with distinctive lined ridges on their backs is good because there is an element of truth in it.
But to do the story justice, I spoke to Reg Bremner, 78, whose old hunting ground included South Africa, Botswana, and Rhodesia.
Rhodesian Ridgeback vs. Lion: who wins?
Let’s be clear. We don’t need Reg to tell us no dog on earth beats a full-grown, healthy adult lion.
For comparison, an adult male lion weighs 370 and 500 pounds. However, I’ve seen many who easily tip the scales around 660 pounds (300 kg).
That’s nearly 700 pounds of coiled muscle, claws, and fangs.
By comparison, a Ridgeback male usually maxes out at around 90 pounds or 40 kg. Although, again, I’ve seen them bigger.
Still, that makes the average Rhodesian Ridgeback a tenth of the size of a lion.
What’s more, Lions rarely move alone. Even males without pride usually tag along with a brother or two.
There’s no real competition here, and there has never been.
But a Ridgeback was never bred to kill a lion. It was developed to face one and live to tell the tale.
And for this, it developed a specific set of skills.
The problem with hunting lions
The problem with hunting lions in the days of rickety rifles and getting around on horseback as Reg Bremner did in his youth was that you never really knew if you were stalking them or if they were hunting you.
In those days, you see, there weren’t many fences, only vast expanses of bushveld and desert.
One story Reg tells of hunting lions around the time that the Rhodesian Ridgeback was being developed as a formal breed took place in the Kalahari Desert. A harsh and unforgiving mix of long dry grass and high dunes.
In this story, a couple of male lions had left their territory in Botswana and moved down to prey on the Kalahari farmers’ cattle.
Reg and several of his hunting buddies were called in to shoot the rogue males.
They mounted their horses, gathered their dogs and rifles, and set off, tracking the lion for a full two days.
It was the late afternoon of the second day where the trail led them to the top of an exceptionally high dune. From there, one could see the veld below for miles.
On top of the dune, they found the clear outlines of the big cats in the sand. Not long before the hunters had arrived, the lions had been lying down, facing the direction of the oncoming riders, possibly for most of the day.
At the back of their imprints, where the tips of their tails would have been, were two indents, side-by-side. The cats had been watching the rider’s approach, and their tails had been swishing back and forth the entire time.
The universal signal of an agitated cat on the hunt.
It was the twitching tails that did it. Reg and his friends got back on their horses and went home. Had they gone further, he would tell me over his signature glass of Bell’s whiskey, they would have ridden into an ambush.
They never did catch those lions, nor did anyone else go after them.
So, I asked him, would it have been different if his dogs had been Ridgebacks?
He gives this idea some thought.
Finally, he issues a verdict. “If you had enough of them, Ridgebacks could hold back an elephant,” he says. Then adds, “hopefully, for long enough to shoot it.”
How the Ridgeback came to hunt lion
The Ridgeback was molded by Africa. Its story starts long before the first colonial Dutch Ship arrived in the Cape of Good Hope in 1651.
It began as the now-extinct African aboriginal dog called the Hottentot Hunting Dog. Belonging to the KhoiKhoi, whom the Dutch would label the Hottentot people, this was a small, aggressive hunting dog with jackal-like features and a distinctive ridge on its back.
Whether this dog was related to more ancient ridge-backed dogs, like those found in ancient Egypt, is up to cynologists to decide.
Regardless, the Hottentot Hunting Dog could survive and hunt in a climate the European dogs would have struggled in. It would also have a natural immunity to African diseases, of which there were plenty.
They were soon crossed with various colonial breeds. Some of the traits of these outcrosses can still be noted in the Rhodesian Ridgeback today.
The Ridgeback still has the sensitivity and empathy of the Great Dane. The dominance and relentlessness of the Bulldog when they attack. And, the athleticism of the Greyhound, if not quite the speed.
But it’s the Hottentot’s little hunting dog that made them the breed they became. In fact, dogs with the distinctive ridge on their back became known as better hunters and were actively chosen, either by hunters or the sheer brutal natural selection that took place in those days. Dogs who couldn’t survive simply didn’t.
The breed began when Reverend Charles Helm brought two of these early ridged mixed breeds from the Cape to a Hope Fountain’s mission station in 1875.
Named Lorna and Powder, they were grey and had coarse coats, so they were not yet the Ridgebacks we know today.
It was there that Helm’s bitches mixed and produced pups from a big game hunter named Cornelius van Rooyen.
Van Rooyen’s original pack contained Deerhounds, Bulldog/Collie mixes, Irish Terriers, and more. But with the introduction of Powder and Lorna’s lines, he came to prize a particular ridged kind of hunting dog that would later become the Ridgeback.
These early RRs, or “Van Rooyen’s Hunting Dogs,” as they were called, were more shaped by lions than they were by any specific breeding program.
As a big game hunter and procurer of African species for the West, van Rooyen simply needed dogs that could corner a lion or other giant species and hold it bay until it could be shot.
Many dogs would die in this endeavor, as one swipe of Lion’s paw would snap a neck. Therefore, the Ridgeback forefathers developed lighting reflexes, an unparalleled intuition about the veld and everything in it, and the ability to charge and leap out of the way. Their role was to keep their target confused, off-balance, and disorientated by the darting, baying hounds and their snapping teeth.
And they did it with aplomb.
They are not the only landrace to develop a distinctive style of dealing with predators. The East Siberian Laika, for instance, is known for “treeing” bears and wildcats. That is, they use the ferocity of their charge to chase bears up a tree, keeping their humans safe.
Likewise, the Ridgebacks learned a style of “in-out.” Individuals in a pack would charge from unpredictable angles, keeping the lion confused and defensive. They would retreat nearly as fast they went in, staying well away from those swiping claws and fangs.
Their job was two-fold: find the lion and then keep it bay long enough for the hunter to shoot it.
The true Rhodesian Ridgeback. What makes the Ridgeback different from other dogs?
My own experience with the Rhodesian Ridgeback started 25 years ago, at the age of ten. A farmer in the area had a bitch who died giving birth, and I was given eight newborn puppies to raise.
It was mid-winter, and the pups would sleep in a basket by my bed underneath the glare of a heater. Very soon, I no longer needed an alarm clock to wake me up for feedings.
The largest male, who would become mine and be named Champ, would scramble, blind and deaf, from the basket and wake me up with soft ‘plonk’ on the hardwood floor.
This became our routine.
Champ would grow up to be the quintessential Ridgeback. He was fearless and independent. He had a unique ability to intuitively understand both people and the veld. However, he never had any formal training.
When it came to people, he understood how to comfort me when I was upset by nuzzling under my arms until crying turned to laughter.
He also understood that he wasn’t allowed to sleep in the house.
Champ circumvented this rule by waiting until all the adults in the house were asleep, then barking softly outside my bedroom window. This would be my cue to pad gently to the kitchen door and let him inside, where the two of us would curl around each other on my single bed.
He always woke up before anyone else did and woke me the same way he did as a puppy, by plonking gently onto the floor into the wee hours. My signal to get him out of the house before anybody woke up.
We were never caught.
When it came to bravery, Champ was both calculating and fearless.
In those days, we never neutered our dogs, so on the nights he didn’t sleep in my bed, he went wandering. Myriad mutts with ridges on their back became a common sight in the area.
He was also a scrapper, and by the time he died at the ripe age of ten, he had lost both his ears to fights over his many local love affairs.
Personally, I only saw aggression from him on rare occasions, aside from when he was hunting. Once, we were charged by a Boerboel twice his size, and he submitted the larger dog in minutes before chasing it away.
He looked neither excited nor proud of this. It was business as usual for him.
Another time involved my Grandfather’s Nguni cattle. Ngunis are fearless protectors of their calves, and the dogs generally gave them a wide berth. Their giant horns are enough to keep the worst harassers at bay.
But we had one dog, a Labrador called Duke, who had as much common sense as the average cabbage. One day, walking through the cows’ kraal, Duke must have strayed too close to a calf.
I turned in time to see the bull already lifting the dog with his horns and slamming him into the ground.
Now Champ generally had no time for Duke. In fact, there was a bit of tension between the two. But he didn’t hesitate that day. He sprang into action, the African Lion Dog in full swing.
He leaped at the bull while its head was down, grabbing the back of its neck.
The attack was so fast and unexpected that the bull retreated, bewildered. The bull’s backward motion caused the rest of the herd to cluster and move away, while Duke ran home howling.
Champ released his grip on the bull as quickly as he gained it. The Rhodesian Ridgeback “in-out” instinct had kicked in.
He was agile enough to sidestep the horns while baying and shooting at the bull from different angles until the other dogs and I had climbed over the fence to safety.
He kept the bull at bay, just like his ancestors kept lions away.
Once we were all safe and out of harm’s way, Champ joined us with his usual serious, business-as-usual face, but this time a slight wag of the tail gave him away. He was proud of himself. As well he should have been.
There is a saying in the world of working German Shepherds, where dogs are trained for the military, police, and personal protection.
“When a dog faces adversity, he reaches back into his ancestry for answers on how to handle it. If he finds no one there, he’s in trouble.”
Such is the importance of genetics. Nowadays, we constantly hear, about every dog, that “it’s all about how you raise them.”
But the Ridgeback is a testimony to the genetic blueprint laid for it by Van Rooyen’s hunting dogs and the fearless Hottentot Hunting dog that came before that.
The Ridgeback today
The Ridgeback today is a genetic echo of Van Rooyen’s Hunting Dogs. It has moved from the veld of Africa to across the world, finding homes in cities, suburbia, and in some cases, still, as the hunting dogs that they were bred for.
And they thrive.
Their ultimate survival tool has always been their versatility.
This is a dog that is as at home curled up with you on the couch as it is tracking wild pigs. It still makes an excellent hunting dog, although its courage and fearlessness are generally better put to use protecting its household and they make excellent watchdogs.
They are family dogs now, for active families and they are excellent companions. Their sensitivity and intuition mean that they often stay a step ahead of their owner, and can read and respond to moods and emotions with unusual empathy.
But if you ever do come across a lion while hiking, mountain, or otherwise, you could do worse than have a Ridgeback by your side.