Wednesday, March 07, 2007

What You Should Know Before Getting a RR

Kate Zimmer of So. Cal RR Rescue sent me this great note on considerations that should be taken into account before getting a Rhodesian Ridgeback. Even though I've spent almost every day for the past year with Rufus, I still learned something by reading this...

The Ridgeback breed has suffered profoundly in recent years from its popularization as a "lion hunter". Ridgebacks were originally meant to be a medium to large breed, with the correct weight for a male being somewhere between 80 and 90 lbs. Females should be smaller than that, somewhere between 65 and 75 lbs. However it is not uncommon today to see 120+ lb Ridgebacks. This is due to their "lion hunter" reputation - people seem to believe that it must take a really big dog to hunt a lion. However, Ridgebacks did not hunt and take down lions -- even a 120 lb dog would be no match for a 500 lb lion! Instead, Ridgebacks scented and then tracked them (and other game) and then kept the game at bay by being quick and agile. A large, bulky dog simply does not have the quickness or agility to keep itself out of harm's way. Unfortunately, though, the effect of that reputation has been to create overbreeding by irresponsible people breeding for a bigger and "badder" dog. This has resulted in an ever-increasing pool of dogs with health and disposition issues. Some Ridgebacks are being produced in the puppy mills of Pennsylvania, Missouri and Ohio (by far the largest sources of puppy mill dogs in the US) and we see Ridgebacks in pet shops from these sources more and more often. The greatest number of Ridgebacks, however, come from puppy mills in Texas-- unfortunately a large percentage of the dogs we're seeing in California today have been purchased from "breeders" in Texas. Obviously we think that Ridgebacks are a wonderful breed. Ridgebacks are, however, not necessarily the best "starter" dog -- that doesn't mean they can't be but they are a hound breed that was bred to hunt and guard. Anybody wanting to adopt one has to be prepared for those three aspects of their personality which are "hard-wired" into them.

Hounds: independent, bred to think for themselves and work independently of their owners. Think of bloodhounds and beagles. Both of those dogs do their thing and the "master" just follows behind. That is true for Ridgebacks too -- they were bred for that independent thinking -- that's how they survived and did their job.

They are not a "working breed" like a Lab, Rottie, Doberman, Shepherd ... those dogs were bred (and are therefore hard-wired) to work by following the instructions of their owner. This "hound" quality makes training and working with a Ridgeback a challenge for a lot of people but it is how they are SUPPOSED to be. You cannot expect a Ridgeback to respond the way a Lab or Shepherd would because they aren't hard-wired to do so. A Ridgeback is hard-wired to think for himself - a lot of people call that stubbornness and grow frustrated. For that reason it's important that a new Ridgeback owner either has some experience training large breed dogs (other than Labs, Goldens, Shepherds, etc) or is very willing to learn and be very consistent. The cunning that helped Ridgebacks survive on the African veldt means that they see any inconsistencies as weak spots and exploit those very quickly.

Hunting: Ridgebacks were bred to hunt large game and hold them at bay. They did not take down the game. In the US they are classified as sighthounds which means their attention is often focused on things they see in the distance ( i.e. not on their owner!). They were supposed to scan the horizon and use their noses (while they are classified in the US as sighthounds, in most other places around the world they are classified as scent hounds -- truly they are a dual purpose hound) to seek out large game and then, once they'd found it, corner it and harrass it so that the hunter had time to come along and get a shot. For that reason they had to be quick and agile.

Ridgebacks are not a good breed to let off leash for this reason -- most will take off after squirrels, etc. that they see. They are bred to be endurance animals -- to go all day on the African veldt. Their body standard is based off of the Dalmation standard -- a breed that was meant to be able to run alongside the fire truck for up to 20 miles at a time. For this reason it can take a lot to tire out a Ridgeback -- typically several longer runs/walks per week are needed.

Many people ask about Ridgebacks and cats - many Ridgebacks live happily with "their" cats, so long as they are properly introduced. This video demonstrates a Ridgeback quite happily co-habitating with a cat:

However, most Ridgebacks will instinctively chase cats -- so if you have neighborhood cats or an existing cat that is likely to run ( i.e. one that isn't used to dogs) Ridgebacks and cats may not be a good match. Many people believe that getting a puppy is the only way to have a Ridgeback and a cat -- I actually disagree with this but I do think that some adult Ridgebacks (those with a very high prey drive) will never be able to live with a cat. Many (like mine) definitely could be introduced to a new cat and live with it (though I do think that if the cat decided to bolt both of my dogs would certainly scurry after it!)

Rufus and "his" cat, Nikita

Guarding: the correct Ridgeback is a faithful hunting companion and family guardian. Ridgebacks were bred to be faithful protectors of the homestead. They are loyal family dogs but they are very aloof with strangers. Typically they will (briefly) acknowledge a visitor to your home and then quietly position themselves between the visitor and their owner. They have very strong bite inhibition -- remember, they did not take down the game, they just held it at bay -- but it's not suprising to see a Ridgeback back a stranger to the house into a corner and "hold" them there (not physically with teeth but they will keep them cornered there). If you have a very busy household with a lot of comings and goings of various people, this is something to take into consideration. Because of their guarding instinct proper socialization to all kinds of strangers (with hats, on bikes, using walkers, etc) is imperative.

Ridgebacks are usually billed as good family dogs and I whole-heartedly agree with this. 

However, because of this reputation they are often acquired by well-meaning but naive folks who don't understand that "good with kids" only comes after proper socialization and "good family dogs" are achieved only with proper handling, raising and training. Because of the independent nature mentioned above, some people find accomplishing this training a bit difficult. They are, if socialized correctly, patient with "their" children (though of course children should never be allowed to harrass dogs) but, in my experience, a lot of running/yelling children not familiar to them is not a great combination. Perhaps that is the sighthound part of their nature -- the running/flailing style of children may incite their natural prey drive.

If you are going to have a large, athletic dog, it is CRITICAL that they be socialized with other dogs.  Large dogs, small dogs, hairy dogs, aggressive dogs, passive dogs, etc.  Unless you have a large number of friends who have dogs, this means taking your dog to dog parks.  For those not experienced with the breed it's important to remember that because Ridgebacks had to be agile and quick they practice those behaviors when they are at play. They tend to do a lot of pouncing and body slamming. They use their paws and mouths (open mouth play, while it can look aggressive, is actually very appropriate play for a Ridgeback) quite a bit.

Here's another link of three Ridgebacks playing - note the both the raw athleticism and the roughness with which they treat each other:

This can be problematic at a dog park because not every dog likes to be body slammed and pounced upon. At the dog park you'll tend to see Labs and Goldens running after a ball or toy (remember, they were bred for this very purpose), and Shepherds and Rottweilers running around (they were bred to herd, remember) -- your Ridgeback *may* do this but it's far more likely that he'll engage in body slamming, paw slapping and quick right/left moves. It's also important to remember that your Ridgeback may decide to play this way (with paw, mouth and body) with young children that he takes to be just two legged pack members - and obviously allowing a dog to play this way with young children is not safe.

They are a wonderful and instinctive protector of their family and home. It is said about Ridgebacks that if they bark you should check it out -- they are not big barkers unless there is a reason. Like any self respecting hound they spend a large portion of their day sleeping and love nothing more than to follow sun patches through the house.

Ridgebacks are famous for being excellent (and devout) "counter surfers". When I was first researching the breed I was told that a typical Ridgeback can be fast asleep (on the couch) while you are preparing dinner. You turn your back to wash a dish or put something into the oven and when you turn back the pot roast that you had sitting out on the counter to cool is gone and your Ridgeback is back asleep on the couch. Though this sounded like lore to me when I was researching the breed I have since learned (through my own Ridgeback and many many foster dogs) that this is actually not far from the truth. For your own sanity and for the health of the dog, you'll want to keep your counters free from food and, in general, prevent access to trash cans that might contain food. Ridgebacks, like any deep chested dog, are prone to bloat - something that can easily come on if your dog gorges himself on food from the counter.

The national Ridgeback club's website ( has several very good articles about Ridgebacks and to help you decide if Ridgebacks truly are the right breed of dog for you. Here are links to two that I think are very important to read:

Monday, March 05, 2007

Rufus Gets Whacked

Rufus is now a 15 month old intact male, and is predictably starting get a bit more assertive toward other dogs. This takes the form of humping. I generally monitor this to see if the other dog is ok with it, and to insure that Rufus does not become too persistent. I'm ok if Rufus gets "whacked" as long as the other dog stays in control. However, on Friday Rufus went to "put a leg over" a 2-year old Rotty mix, and the other dog spun on Rufus and went after him. There was a lot of noise and scuffling, and Rufus came out on the short end of the stick (Rufus is generally a beta male, and to date has never been in a true fight). Had no blood been drawn, I would have been ok with this. I think dogs are the best teachers of canine manners, and Rufus benefits by correction by other dogs. However, Rufus ended up with two 1cm slashes on the inside of his eyelid, necessitating a trip to the vet.

No stitches, but he had to wear "the lampshade" all weekend and his eye is still red and puffy. Rufus has not been a happy puppy the last few days...

In a subsequent email conversation with the other dog's owner and a friend of his, I started to feel like a negligent doggy daddy. By allowing free rein to Rufus's adolescent urges, had I inadvertently created a situation in which he was set up to get hurt? Was I the irresponsible parent who allowed his child to play in traffic? I sought the counsel of Christine Dahl, owner of Seattle Dogworks, whose opinion on training I respect and trust. My question was how to best to help Rufus safely get through his adolescence as an intact male. It seems that humping is seldom welcome behavior on the part of the "humpee". I just hope he will start to figure this out such that we don't have to make any more trips to the vet along the way...

Her answer follows:

Hi Martin,

Thank you so much for all your support! It's wonderful to hear from you and to hear a Rufus update--even if it is for humping! I am so, so, sorry he got roughed up.

First, it's best to bail on the "dominance" explanation. That's the old information doled out by those in the field who were forced to make up their own interpretations of dog language and it just gums up the equation. We now know, via science of course, that dominance is greatly useless in reading or modifying behavior. It exists, but for our purposes if we're going to change it, we gotta throw it out. It is highly likely that the humping has nothing to do with his attempts at dominance.

Humping is a very normal behavior, as I know you know, and unless an intact male is mounting a female in heat, all he's doing is practicing. have an adolescent male in the home. Interestingly, it is much more likely that the dog on the receiving end of Rufus' moves is actually the one with a behavior problem with intact males. It's very common for dogs to overreact, especially other males, when being in the vicinity of an intact male (even just walking a half a block near one can set him off) let alone being mounted by one. It sounds like you're already on board with understanding the problem being in the Rotty, but just in case, rest assured it is very unlikely that Rufus did anything in appropriate other than hump a male who was predisposed to reacting to him. Interestingly, sometimes these dogs react as a result of being punished for "allowing themselves to be humped." Homophobia or what!

I would proceed just as you have but with the new knowledge that some dogs, especially other males, are hypersensitive to intact males. You're correct that it's usually wisest to allow dogs to work out their problems on their own, but that's with the assumption that they are as well-raised as Rufus is. If that was the case, I'd be out of a job! Around dogs he knows, you may want to feel free to allow him more freedom, but pull him away (before he humps, ideally) from those you don't know as well.

Does that help?

Cristine Dahl, CTC
Seattle Dogworks Training & Education Studio (formerly SeattleDogs)
1417 10th Ave, #2
Seattle, WA 98122