06 June 2012

The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday...

It's like the man says. The Rhodesian Ridgeback is the Navy Seal of the dog breeds. Granted I'd have rather compared them to... Say the Army Rangers, or perhaps Delta Force... But branch bias aside, it's a solid fact. Versatility, adaptability, intelligence, stamina, strength, loyalty, and courage.... These are the watchwords of the breed. The very needs that the original owners of the very first examples sought to fill.

I thought I would take some time today to write a bit about the origins and the history of the Ridgeback. After several failed attempts in which I continually had to remind myself that this was not a research paper nor was it a presentation, I have opted to simply type as though I was having the ever increasingly familiar conversation with a friend after they ask me what type of puppy I'm expecting and they give me that blank stare as the ask "A Ridge-wha?"

The Rhodesian Ridgeback is one of only two officially registered breeds indigenous to Southern Africa. Long before any official registration, however, there was an origin. The furthest that the Ridgeback is typically traced back is the time of the Khoikhoi, also known as the Hottentots by the European adventurers, who were primarily located around the Cape of Good Hope region of Southern Africa.

Most descriptions of the Khoikhoi 'Ridged Dog' offer an image very unlike the one we know as the RR today. The primitive, semi-domesticated dog of the Khoikhoi people was much smaller in dimension and far less uniform in appearance. Most records indicate that the Khoikhoi used this dog mostly for the protection of their settlements and for hunting.

The early visitors to the South African region, namely the Portuguese and the Dutch, were very impressed with the attributes of the ridged primitive. They soon found that they had a need for a dog that was well suited to the new environment and also one that was resistant to local illnesses and hazards. So they first began to domesticate some for themselves and would eventually begin actively cross-breeding the ridged dog with breeds that they had brought to Africa with them upon settling.

That just about covers the 'why' of how Rhodesian Ridgebacks came to be... Next we'll investigate a bit of the 'how'. Though some of the earlier records (pre-1920's) are sparse at best, one simply cannot have a conversation about the history and origin of the Ridgeback without speaking of two gentlemen. Renowned big game hunter Cornelius Van Rooyen, and missionary Rev Charles David Helm.

As I stated above, records are indistinct during this time period, but what seems to be a popular consensus, is as follows: Sometime in the late 1800's, Cornelius Van Rooyen began to hunt big game in the Zimbabwe/Botswana region and continued to do so for nearly a half century to follow. During this time, it is said that Rev Charles Helm, who moved to Hope Foundation in Zimbabwe in approximately 1875, presided over Van Rooyen's marriage. It is assumed that his was the time in which Helm was introduced to Van Rooyen's hunting dogs. Regardless of the validity of that assumption, it is known that Helm did possess two Bitches, larger than today's standard Ridgeback.

These two bitches are widely considered as the foundation of all things Rhodesian Ridgeback, as they were bred to Van Rooyen's existing pack, their offspring retaining the primitive ridge along their backs. Van Rooyen, the experienced hunter, was so impressed with the performance of the ridged offspring that he coveted the trait in all of his hunting companions from then forward, having been recorded as utilizing ridged hunting dogs for the next 30 some years.

Be it fate or coincidence, but this was a major turning point in the evolution of the Rhodesian Ridgeback as a singular breed. At some point during his breeding process, Van Rooyen came to attribute the inconceivable levels of courage and bravery found in his dogs to the possession of the ridge, therefore making the decision to begin breeding specifically for this physical trait.

Over the years, Van Rooyen crossed several other established breeds of dog into his 'pack'. These are thought to have included the Bloodhound/Pointer (having a good nose), the Greyhound (having speed), the Bulldog/Bullterrier (having courage and tenacity), the Airedale and Irish Terrier (having dash and spirit) and certainly the Deerhound (having stamina). Other sources identify the possibility of Great Dane's, and especially the Collie as other breeds Van Rooyen used.

Crosses were chosen to increase performance above all else. Cornelius' breeding ethos seemed to be quite simply an extension of natural selection. The good dogs survived, and the not so good ones didn't. Breeds were added to the program based on desired traits. Increased speed, stamina, sight, scent, power. It was through Van Rooyen's quest for the ultimate in hunting dogs that our beloved, adaptable, versatile Rhodesian Ridgeback was allowed to exist.
Now at this particular point in time... Let's call it the very early 1900's, these ridged 'African Lion Dogs' were seen as nothing more than mongrel's by the dog community at large. For one particular Dog Fancier, Francis Richard Barnes, this presented a problem. In a unique position, Francis understood the distinction between the two schools of thought that existed in the dog fancier's world. One that emphasized showing and breed standard as the important factor, the other focused purely on performance of the breed.

Having spend nearly two decades as a Kennel Club enthusiast, and also judging dog shows, Francis had a working knowledge of the Kennel Club scene. He was very proud of his ridged hunting and farm dogs, and wished to do something to preserve this finely crafted breed of dog.  So together with a handful of other ridged dog enthusiasts, he helped to create the breed standard for what we now know as the Rhodesian Ridgeback. Originally submitted in 1922 and heavily influenced by the standard for the Dalmatian breed, the standard was eventually accepted after revisions in 1926. And so, thanks to the work of Barnes and other early pioneers, our Rhodesian Ridgeback was immortalized as a unique breed and recognized with it's own standard.

For the next couple of decades, the breed seemed to gain a foothold in the region and flourished. Life in South Africa under the British Crown at this time was lacking borders and boundaries, Kennels were established and built up the breed in fabulous fashion.

In fact, during a visit to South Africa on then Princess Elizabeth II's 21st birthday, she herself was presented with a pair of Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs. Although eventually she would give ownership of the dogs to Dr. and Mrs K. C. MacKenzie, prominent RR breeders in England at the time because she felt it was in the dog's best interests.

Following the end of World War II and increasing strife in Southern Africa, the breed's popularity and support began to diminish. It was mostly through the work and dedication of Mylda Arsenis, Irene Kingcombe, and Phyllis McCarthy during the 1960's and 1970's that saved the breed from fading away once again into obscurity.

And there it is, in a nutshell, the origin and history of this most awesome of dog breeds. The Ridgeback's path to existence was not easy, nor linear. Despite the relative youth of the breed in comparison to some of the much more longstanding registered breeds, the details of the creation and history of our Ridgeback's remain somewhat obscure, vague, and even at times complete conjecture.

However even that seems somewhat fitting. Almost as if this hyper intelligent, endlessly curious, highly capable and intolerably proud breed of dog, our Rhodesian Ridgeback, prefers it that way. You can almost see it in their eyes, a confident, cocky sort of expression that says "I know so much more than you can even imagine, and no, you can't handle the truth."

At any rate, stay tuned. More posts to come, including spotlights on a handful of publications, some online support, and more...