The Rhodesian Ridgeback is a readily recognized breed. Sleek-coated, large and muscular, they run the color spectrum from the palest flaxen to deep, red wheaten.
However, their most distinctive attribute is a central ridge of backward growing hair that begins behind their shoulders tapering down the spine to their haunches.
Can a Rhodesian Ridgeback Have No Ridge?
It can, and it shows up (or rather doesn’t show up) in a certain percentage of dogs. More interestingly, the existence of a ridge is actually a congenital defect–one, however, that breeders have long strived to create and maintain in these beautiful dogs.
But Why Breed for a Defect?
Well, the ridge is pretty cool looking.
But to answer the question more fully, one has to understand the origins of the Rhodesian Ridgeback, and that requires a trip back in history to South Africa in the 1500s when the Dutch East India Company established a port at the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost tip of South Africa. The port was a stop off for many European shippers to rest and restock on their trips to or returning from China and other far eastern destinations.
Where the Ridge Came From
During these rest stops, these European travelers became aware of a smaller, jackal-sized dog native to the Khoikhoi people of the Cape peninsula. Highly intelligent, excellent guard dogs and fierce hunters, many of these dogs also sported a distinct ridge of backward growing hair down the centers of their backs.
The Inherent Value of the Native Breed
European settlers who had brought their own dog breeds to South Africa found their animals often succumbed to diseases spread by the tse-tse fly and the harsh, unfamiliar climate. However, by selectively interbreeding the native Khoikhoi dog with their own breeds–mastiffs, great danes, greyhounds, and blood hounds–a hardier more resilient breed emerged.
The settlers also discovered that, for whatever reason, the native dogs with the backward stripes of hair also appeared to be the better hunters than their ridgeless counterparts. The Khoikhoi dog was proficient at hunting boar, could down an antelope, and would even tease and disorient a lion, keeping it at bay until a hunter could get in position to shoot it. Fortunately, the ridge was a dominant trait and so more often than not, that trait persisted.
South Africa is NOT Rhodesia. How Did The Dogs Get Up There?
Good catch. And we should add that nor were these early crossbreeds the dogs we know today as Rhodesian Ridgebacks. No, it took a lot more time and a few instrumental people to establish the breed.
The Rev. Charles Helm
In the late 1870’s the Rev. Charles Helm left South Africa and traveled north to Hope Fountain to establish a mission in the country then known as Rhodesia, what is now modern-day Zimbabwe. With him he brought his young family along with two ridged females. These predecessors would become the foundation of the Rhodesia Ridgeback breed.
Cornelius Van Rooyen
It was in Rhodesia that Helm became acquainted with the big game hunter Cornelius Van Rooyen. The famed hunter was searching for a breed of dog brave, clever and agile enough to hold a lion at bay. He bred Helm’s pair with his own pack of dogs, and while there are no specific records, they were believed to be an assortment of greyhounds, Irish and airedale terriers, pointers, deerhounds, collies and bulldogs. These dogs became known as Van Rooyen Lion Dogs as they proved able assistants in big game hunts for leopards, lions and baboons.
Sir Francis Richard Barnes
However, it was not Van Rooyen but rather Sir Francis Richard Barnes who was instrumental in establishing a standard for the breed. In 1922 Barnes brought several of his own dogs, by then called Rhodesian Ridgebacks, to the South African Kennel Union and from that sampling and using the Dalmation standard, they established the standards that recognized the breed’s best traits. The ridge was one such requirement.
As for the United States, it wasn’t until 1955 that the Rhodesian Ridgeback was accepted by the American Kennel Club as a member of the hound group. And as the ridge is the breed’s hallmark quality, the AKC, too, requires a ridge in order for the dog to compete in conformation.
So Can a Rhodesian Ridgeback Have No Ridge? It Sort of Sounds Like it Can’t
There is a big difference between having the ideal standards of a particular breed of dog, and not being a member of it. A Rhodesian Ridgeback doesn’t have to have a ridge, but without one it cannot compete in AKC conformation. There are even ideal standards about how the ridge needs to look in order to be a show-quality dog. However, with or without a ridge, a Rhodesian Ridgeback is just as much a member of the breed, just as loyal a friend, and certainly as loveable!
But Why Are Some Rhodesian Ridgebacks Born Without Ridges?
The short answer is: genetics. Rhodesian Ridgebacks, at least those with ridges, carry either one or two copies of a particular gene that causes the ridge. Dogs with two copies of the gene are called homozygous, and those with just one copy are called heterozygous. Both dog types will be born with ridges.
Dogs with neither one copy nor two will be born without a ridge, but only one parent needs to have a ridge in order to pass the trait on to offspring.
Big game hunting is largely a thing of the past and so today, the presence of a ridge is simply aesthetic and for the most part only important if your goal is to raise a dog for show.
And while researchers have not yet determined the exact gene that causes the ridge, there is no reason to worry that a breeder that promises a ridged puppy might sell you one that isn’t. The ridge of the Rhodesian Ridgeback is immediately visible at birth.