The Khoikhoi people occupied the Cape Peninsula during the mid 17th century when the Dutch began trading with the area and set up a trading station. These people had a dog which was used for hunting; described as ugly, but noted for its ferocity when acting as a guard dog. This dog measured 18 inches (46 cm) at the withers, with a lean but muscular frame. The ears have been described both as erect and hanging, but the most distinctive feature was the length of hair growing in the reverse direction along its back. Within 53 years of the Dutch settlement, the Europeans were using these local dogs themselves.
By the 1860s, European settlers had brought a variety of dog breeds to this area of Africa, including Bloodhounds, Greyhounds, terriers, and Foxhounds. These breeds were bred with the indigenous African dogs, including the dog of the Khoikhoi people, which resulted in the Boer hunting dogs, a forerunner to the modern Rhodesian Ridgeback.
Reverend Charles Helm traveled to the Hope Fountain Mission in Southern Rhodesia in the 1870s, taking two ridged dogs with him. It was there that Cornelius van Rooyen, a big–game hunter, saw them and decided to breed his own dogs with them to incorporate their guarding abilities. The offspring were dogs with red coats and ridges.
They became the foundation stock of a kennel which developed dogs over the next thirty five years with the ability to bay lions, that is, to hold them at bay while the hunter makes the kill. The dogs were used to hunt not only lions but also other game, including wild pigs and baboons. (They have the ability to kill a baboon independent of a human hunter.) The first breed standard was written by Mr F.R. Barnes in Bulawayo, Rhodesia in 1922. Based on that of the Dalmatian, it was approved in 1926 by the South African Kennel Union.
The first Rhodesian Ridgebacks in Britain were shown by Mrs. Edward Foljambe in 1928. The breed was admitted into the American Kennel Club in 1955 as a member of the Hound Group.
The Rhodesian Ridgeback's distinguishing feature is the ridge of hair along its back, running in the opposite direction to the rest of its coat. It consists of a fan-like area formed by two whorls of hair (called "crowns") and tapers from immediately behind the shoulders down to the level of the hips. The ridge is usually about 2 inches (5 cm) in width at its widest point. It is believed to originate from the dog used by the original African dog population, which had a similar ridge. The first depiction of a Ridgeback is a wall painting describing the life of the Boers, housed in South Africa in the Voortrekker Monument.
Rhodesian Ridgebacks are loyal and intelligent and somewhat aloof to strangers. This is not to be confused with aggression; a Ridgeback of proper temperament will be more inclined to ignore, rather than challenge, a stranger. This breed requires positive, reward-based training, good socialization and consistency; it is often not the best choice for inexperienced dog owners. Ridgebacks are strong-willed, intelligent, and many seem to have a penchant for mischief, though loving. They are protective of their owners and families. If trained well, they can be excellent guard dogs.
Despite their athletic, sometimes imposing, exterior, the Ridgeback has a sensitive side. Excessively harsh training methods, that might be tolerated by a sporting or working dog, will likely backfire on a Ridgeback. The Ridgeback accepts correction as long as it is fair and justified, and as long as it comes from someone he knows and trusts. Francis R. Barnes, who wrote the first standard in 1922, acknowledged that "rough treatment ... should never be administered to these dogs, especially when they are young. They go to pieces with handling of that kind
Health conditions known to affect this breed are hip dysplasia and dermoid sinus. The Ridgeback ranks number six in terms of most affected breeds for thyroid problems recorded by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. UK breed survey puts the average lifespan at 10.25 years