Did the Rhodesian Ridgeback Really Hunt Lions? - Hobbster

Did the Rhodesian Ridgeback Really Hunt Lions?

Hobbster owner and pet dog

I own a 50kg Rhodesian Ridgeback called Hobbes, who is the inspiration behind the Hobbster business, and has sat by me the last few months as I've built the website. When I made the decision to get a dog I had an idea that I wanted a large, short haired dog, but I didn't really have the knowledge of experience to decide which breed would best suit me and my lifestyle. I read as much as I could online and spent a lot of hours on YouTube learning from the experts.

Ignoring the advice that a large breed as a first pet might not be the best idea, I shortlisted four breeds - Hungarian Vizslas, German Short Haired Pointers, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, and Airedale Terriers, then I doubled-down on finding out as much as I could to decide which one was best for me. 

I decided on the Ridgeback for a number of reasons and am so glad I did. Hobbes is big, clumsy, extraordinarily friendly, handsome, and well liked by people and dogs alike. But I do get asked two questions quite a lot - how much does he weigh, and did I know they were bred to hunt lions?!!

As it happens I did, the history of the Ridgeback is something I researched before deciding it was the breed for me. But Hobbes [who, ironically is named after a stuffed lion from the comic strip 'Calvin & Hobbes'], - a lion hunter? No. A squirrel chaser - well, he tries his best! But here's a little of what I learned about Ridgebacks from back then...

The Rhodesian Ridgeback: A lion hound bred for African adventures and couch surfing!

The Ridgeback is a powerfully built dog with that distinctive ridge of fur running down its back, making it easy to identify.

The exact origins of the Ridgeback remain somewhat shrouded in mystery, but experts do seem to agree that it isn't derived from a single breed, but rather a blend of several dog breeds:

Hottentot Hound: most experts point to the Hottentot Hound as a significant influence. Also referred to as the Khoekhoe Hound or the African Sighthound, it is an extinct breed of dog believed to have been developed by the Khoekhoe people (also known as the Hottentots) of Southern Africa, thousands of years ago. The breed was primarily used for hunting antelope and other prey in the harsh African terrain, and they possessed key characteristics that made them valuable hunters  in the African savanna:

  1. - Speed and stamina: Sighthound-like build for pursuing prey over long distances.
  2. - Keen eyesight: Essential for spotting prey in the vast savanna.
  3. - Independent thinking: Capable of working semi-autonomously alongside their human companions. 

European hunting dogs: Dutch colonists in the 17th century brought various European breeds to South Africa. Breeds like the Mastiff contributed size and strength, while the Bloodhound likely influenced the Ridgeback's sense of smell, useful for tracking wounded prey. Other possible contributors include Greyhounds for speed and Terriers for vermin control.

Through generations of selective breeding by Dutch settlers, particularly the Van der Merwe family, who arrived with the Dutch East India company in the 17th century, these diverse breeds were combined to create a dog perfectly suited for the harsh African environment and challenges of big game hunting. The resulting Rhodesian Ridgeback inherited a unique combination of traits from its ancestors.

That Ridge!

Ridgeback puppies

The distinctive ridge of fur running down the back of a Rhodesian Ridgeback is caused by a genetic mutation. This mutation results in a duplication of a small segment of DNA on chromosome 17. This duplicated region contains three specific genes playing a crucial role in embryonic development, particularly influencing hair growth patterns.

The duplication in the Rhodesian Ridgeback disrupts this normal development, causing the hair follicles along the back to grow in the opposite direction compared to the rest of the coat. This results in the characteristic ridge formation with the "crown" patterns at either end, and each ridge can vary in length, definition, and crown patterns.

Did they really 'hunt' lions?

Historically known as the Lion Dog, and bred for hunting purposes in Africa, their role with lions is a bit more nuanced than simply "hunting" lions. 

Bred for Big Game: There's no doubt the Ridgeback's development involved hunting large prey. Their size, strength, speed, and courage made them valuable companions for hunting animals such as antelope, springboks, warthogs, baboons, and smaller prey like rabbits and foxes. 

Tracking and Baying: Their primary role with lions was likely not to directly attack them, which would be dangerous for any single dog. Instead, they excelled at

  1. Tracking:Their keen sense of smell and tracking ability allowed them to locate lions; and
  2. Baying:Once a lion was found, the Ridgeback would bark and harass it, keeping it at bay until the hunters arrived.

You might remember the infamous Rickey Gervais stand up show, Humanity, where he shared his ideas on the perfect jobs for specific dog breeds, including the Ridgeback:

Ricky Gervais Humanity Tour clip: [caution: contains swearing]

 A Breed Evolves: Beyond the Lion Hunt

As lion hunting declined in the latter half of the 20th century there needed to be a shift in the Ridgeback's primary function, and they gained popularity outside of Africa as versatile family and working dogs. Their trainability and athleticism saw them excel in various dog sports like obedience, agility, and tracking. And their loyalty and calm demeanour make them excellent family dogs.

It was fascinating to learn the Ridgeback's history and what shaped this iconic breed, but as I look at Hobbes, still asleep, I think he's more likely to want to play with the lion than chase it!


[1] The Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of South Africa: https://www.facebook.com/groups/331768734338912/ [2] American Kennel Club: https://www.akc.org/dog-breeds/rhodesian-ridgeback/ [3] The National Breed Club for the Rhodesian Ridgeback: https://www.rrcus.org/ [4] The Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of Canada: https://www.rrclubofcanada.org/ [5] The Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of New Zealand: https://www.dogsnz.org.nz/clubs/the-rhodesian-ridgeback-association [6] VCA Animal Hospitals:

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1 comment

Great article. Can you find out if labradors really used to be used to pull fishing nets in? I think it’s a skill that has abandoned my two….

Stephen Bennett

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