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 (www.rrcus.org) 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:

http://www.rrcus.org/assets/html/breedinfo/For_you.htm

http://www.rrcus.org/assets/html/breedinfo/living.htm

13 comments:

Tricia said...

Kate is great! She connected us with Thani - our 2.5 yo RR/mix - through RR rescue of Southern Cal.

Thani gets along great with our 8 yo cat Yoshi. Actually, the video you posted looks strikingly similar to them.

Thanks for the good info.

Anonymous said...

Hi,
Thank you for the great information on RR. We adopted one from our daughter who joined the Marines. He is a rescue dog so we think he is mostly RR, but his ears are much smaller. He doesn't get along with the cat at all. Just wants to eat her. He does not have the ridge down the back unless he is upset. We have heard they're are ridgeless RR. Any idea what the mix would be with the smaller ears?
Thanks, loved your site!

Joana said...

Great post! We have a RR as well and he is now 9 months old. He is not aloof to strangers at all. Actually, he is quite the opposite. During his training course he was called by his trainer as being oversocial. Now when we walk him in the street he is not allowed to be pet by any strangers. He also gets along quite well with other dogs (big or small dogs). I was wondering if you could share with me the experience of having a teenager RR. Mine seems to be trying to challenge us a lot. It is always nice to hear from someone who has maybe been through the same! : ) How was it with Rufus?? I think out biggest issue is walking him off leash... when he meets other dogs he won't return to us. Few months ago he would... Ah! Lovely to see the video of your dog playing with the cat! We are thinking of getting a cat soon! : )

Cheers,

Joana

Anonymous said...

I am very curious as to where you have gotten your information on RRs. The Rhodesian Ridgebacks we got from Africa were in the 120lb range. For years now after their death I have not been able to find any of this size. I have, not to long ago talked to a lady who grew up in Rhodesia and whose father hunted lions. According to her, a firsthand source, the ridgebacks did take down the lions and were normally between 115 and 120 lbs. The idea that a large dog cannot be athletic is akin to saying that the 500lb lions could not possibly climb trees. Our 120lb male could jump four foot fences at a trot.
Thanks,
Luke

Anonymous said...

RR are just the best. My Boots was a rescue and loved kids and chased cats outside only. They are very loyal and a good judge of strangers take their judgement and watch that stranger -Not to be trusted. Missing Boots every day. lucy

flyingshamrockranch said...

I very much agree with your comment that Ridgebacks are "hardwired" to chase cats. I have several house cats my RR's have been raised with. The cats remain indoors and the RR's are always under my watchful eye. They are very "interested" in the cats when they play and move but have been trained to be gentle and respectful of them.

However, and isn't there always a however?, any cat, rabbit, squirrel or bird out of doors is fair game to them. One evening I did not close the front door properly and my cats cruised out into the dog yard. (Unbeknownst to me when I let the RR's out) I heard the RR's chasing something in the yard (it was very dark outside) and just nearly averted a disaster by stopping them and herding the cats back inside. (There goes one of their nine lives). These are the very same cats who cuddle and sleep with the dogs. Once something starts running from them their prey drive kicks in with a fury. I believe you can modify the behavior but you will never eliminate it. I wouldn't have it any other way. I love my RR's and this episode was entirely my fault but my point is RR's are not for the average dog owner.

flyingshamrockranch said...

I very much agree with your comment that Ridgebacks are "hardwired" to chase cats. I have several house cats my RR's have been raised with. The cats remain indoors and the RR's are always under my watchful eye. They are very "interested" in the cats when they play and move but have been trained to be gentle and respectful of them.

However, and isn't there always a however?, any cat, rabbit, squirrel or bird out of doors is fair game to them. One evening I did not close the front door properly and my cats cruised out into the dog yard. (Unbeknownst to me when I let the RR's out) I heard the RR's chasing something in the yard (it was very dark outside) and just nearly averted a disaster by stopping them and herding the cats back inside. (There goes one of their nine lives). These are the very same cats who cuddle and sleep with the dogs. Once something starts running from them their prey drive kicks in with a fury. I believe you can modify the behavior but you will never eliminate it. I wouldn't have it any other way. I love my RR's and this episode was entirely my fault but my point is RR's are not for the average dog owner.

Martin Buhr said...

We now have two cats, and Rufus (who at 8 years has become the regal canine patriarch of our family) is only mildly interested in them, inside or out. Our Dane is much more interested in chasing them, but then does not seem to know what to do if/when he catches up to them.

Alter said...

I assure you, no Ridgeback EVER took down a Lion unless the poor thing was dying anyway. Basically, that lady was misleading or flagrantly lying if she said that, which some breeders do in order to persuade people to get their dogs.

There is at least one breeder in South Africa (where I am based) who claims her dogs are 'working dogs'. That is nonsense. Ridgebacks have not been used to hunt lions for MANY MANY years, and if she has one barking at a caged Lion, or somesuch, that certainly does not count! Even a *small* lioness would be well over twice the size of the largest healthy male Ridgeback, and at 50mph even our athletic babies wouldn't stand a chance in an actual *fight*. They were used to keep Lions at bay and distract them, that's all.

As for the size issue, ours seem distinctly larger than the American and European ones. Even our 2 year old female is just over 100lbs, and her 10 month old brother is already 106lbs (that's trim, I assure you. 'A rib or two visible') - though they are noticeably larger than 98% of RRs we typically come across.

They are from South Africa's top breeder, which I suspect would really mean the world's top breeder as the dogs come from here (they were first bred in Suurbrak in the Western Cape province, later taken to and bred in 'Rhodesia' now Zimbabwe). They are a common breed in the country, especially in the Western Cape, and we have sometimes come across ten in a single beach walk! It's a rare week that we don't meet at least a few when hiking / walking with the dogs.

As an aside, best dogs ever!

Christopher Bishop said...

My RR is now a year and he is high energy as I expected because he is my second one. He enjoys strangers and jumping on counters when you are not looking. You have to be persistent.

They are the best dogs ever

Gina Mcgowan said...

Great info! I have a ridgeback boxer mix and he follows the ridgeback traits. I get so fustrated that my dog will not follow me like all the other dogs at the park and his squirrel drive is so embarrassing but this article made me feel so much better. My one question is if he takes off at the park will he come back?

Martin Buhr said...

@Gina - the good news about RRs is that *most* of them are highly food motivated. Thus, I highly recommend you try training for "formal recall" using special "bait" which is reserved for this purpose (Rufus was a huge fan of baby food which contained meat, which had the added advantage that the little bottles came with lids and were easily resealable). http://tythedogguy.com/2015/02/06/train-the-formal-recall/

Ginger Owen said...

My RR was African bred. She was 80 lbs and very athletically fit at that weight. He daddy was 120 lbs. This article is pretty much right on a about the breed characteristics. My understanding of their purpose of the hunt was to keep attacking lions at bay until the danger was over. They throw thier huge hips into the lion's striking paws, rarely without injury, agile enough to turn and again for the same defense tactic. We camped alot with her. She slept all day and paroled camp all night. Rarely ever barked, but had a low growl that got the attention of an interloper. When she barked, it was for a good reason. I too have yet to find another one of her caliber of breeding.