In the 19th century, the Boers, Dutch settlers of today's South Africa, and the Rhodesians, British settlers of today's Zimbabwe and Zambia, were in fierce competition for control of that region. Both groups needed tough hunting and guard dogs capable of functioning in the African climate. The Dutch bred the animal they referred to as the "Hottentot" or African lion dog, but the British, who ended up with naming rights to the breed, called it the Rhodesian ridgeback.
"Hottentot" and Khoikhoi
In the mid-16th century, when the Dutch began colonizing the Cape of Good Hope, the first native people they encountered were the Khoikhoi, herders who spoke one of southern Africa's 30 or so unique "click" languages. The Dutch called these people "Hottentots," a word derived from a northern Dutch dialect meaning "stutterer" or "stammerer." Today, Rhodesian ridgeback breed histories still refer to "Hottentots" and their dogs.
The Khoikhoi's Dogs
Early Dutch, German, British and Huguenot immigrants to Southern Africa had little regard for the Khoikhoi, whom they proceeded to dispossess, exterminate, enslave, and kill off with European diseases to which the Africans had no immunity. However, they did admire the dogs the Khoikhoi had domesticated and trained to protect their herds and homes. Characterized by a ridge of hair along the spine slanting forward instead of backward, these dogs were ideally suited to the climate and terrain -- much more so than the breeds, including Great Danes, mastiffs, greyhounds, salukis and bloodhounds, the Europeans had brought with them.
Life on the Veld
European dogs weren't cut out for the special challenges of life on the grasslands, or veld, the Afrikaans word for "field," where the Europeans established their farms and plantations. During the winter season from May through September, temperatures were mild, but in summer, from November through March, daytime temperatures ranged from hot to scorching, sometimes plunging to freezing at night. Today, South Africa and Zimbabwe have set aside large tracts of land as wildlife preserves but back then, the veld was teeming with animals -- lions, leopards, cheetah, elephants, giraffes, hippos, antelopes, ostriches -- roaming free in their natural habitat. The farming life had its hazards, though: Big carnivores viewed humans as just another potential meal and none of the veld's wildlife respected fences.
Adoption of the Ridgeback by the Afrikaners
Western trophy hunters also needed hunting dogs. Some entries on their wish list were generic -- intelligence, bravery, loyalty, trustworthiness around children -- while others were specific to Africa. An essential requirement: The dog had to be capable of cornering a lion and living to bark another day. He had to tolerate wild fluctuations in temperature; last 24 hours without water, if necessary; and bring down wounded animals. Hoping to create the perfect blend, settlers began interbreeding the dogs of the Khoikhoi with European dogs. In 1875, Cornelius van Rooyen, a big-game hunter and authority on the wildlife of southern Africa, custom-bred an entire pack to fit his own requirements. These became the prototype for the breed certified by the American Kennel Club in 1955 and known today as the Rhodesian ridgeback.
According to the Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of the United States, this breed's intelligence makes it easily trainable; untrained, however, the dogs can be a "terrible nuisance." As family dogs, they're quiet, gentle, affectionate and good around children, but the innate pack mentality of this powerful, headstrong breed means that it requires strong, consistent leadership. As watchdogs, their instincts are more than adequate for protecting home and family, but because they can also become inappropriately threatening around strangers, this behavior should never be encouraged with guard dog or "attack" training. What these athletic dogs need most is obedience training.