You may never find yourself on a hunt in the safari, but if you do and you encounter a hungry lion in the wild, you may want a Rhodesian Ridgeback in your corner.
Can a Rhodesian Ridgeback Dog Kill a Lion?
A Rhodesian Ridgeback is a large, muscular dog that was bred specifically to assist in wild game hunting expeditions, including those for lions. The breed is fearless, agile, and highly intelligent. But it cannot kill an adult lion.
In fact, no single dog, no matter how large the breed, could likely kill a lion. With their vicious teeth and slashing claws, lions are simply too large and too fierce. There’s a reason they are called “King of the Jungle.”
Then Why Is the Rhodesian Ridgeback Called the African Lion Dog?
Rhodesian Ridgebacks have been alternately nicknamed African Lion Dogs or African Lion Hounds. And for good reason. As previously mentioned, they were bred to assist in wild game hunting expeditions.
But the role they played in the hunt was not to attack lions but to pursue, corner, and distract them long enough for the hunter to get in place and take his shot.
Rhodesian Ridgebacks have also been called Van Rooyen’s Lion Dogs, named for Cornelius (Nellis) Van Rooyen a Dutch big game hunter from the then-called country of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
Van Rooyen was instrumental in developing the breed into the beautiful, powerful dogs we recognize today.
A Bit of History Before Van Rooyen
To understand Van Rooyen’s role, one must first acknowledge the early development of the breed.
Rhodesian Ridgebacks owe their beginnings to Europeans who in the mid-1600s began settling in the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost tip of South Africa where the Dutch East India Company had established a trading port.
These colonists brought a broad mix of dog breeds of their own to South Africa, among them Mastiffs, Greyhounds, Bloodhounds, Great Danes, as well as various terriers. Unfortunately, the animals struggled to survive the unfamiliar climate and local diseases spread by pests.
However, by crossing their European dogs with a pointy-eared, jackal-sized hunting dog common to the native Khoikhoi people of the region, they found the offspring inherited an important characteristic. The new crossbreeds were far more resilient to the climate and to local diseases.
There were a couple of other characteristics about the Khoikhoi dogs that caught the European’s attention. First and foremost, they made excellent hunters and guard dogs, a necessity in an untamed environment.
Additionally, many of the dogs sported a distinct ridge of backward growing hair that began just below their shoulder blades and tapered down to their haunches. A dominant trait, the ridge was more often than not passed down to succeeding generations.
A couple of hundred years later, a South African missionary by the name of Charles Helm moved his young family north to Hope Fountain in Rhodesia to operate the mission there. With him, he brought two female greyhound-sized dogs named Lorna and Powder who possessed the distinctive Khoikhoi dog ridge.
Van Rooyen and His Fine-Tuning of the “Lion Dog”
During his time in Rhodesia, Helm made the acquaintance of Van Rooyen. Barely 19-years-old, the young hunter had made a name for himself regularly arranging hunts with and for wealthy European aristocrats.
He saw qualities in Helm’s dogs that he felt could enhance his own pack of hunting dogs which is believed to include Greyhounds, Irish and Airedale terriers, Bulldogs, and Collies.
Van Rooyen requested and was allowed to crossbreed his pack with Helm’s dogs, and the resultant offspring were found to have a strong prey drive, well-suited for big game hunting.
Van Rooyen’s lion dogs, as they came to be called, were prized for their loyalty and agility as well as their ability to withstand the rigors of big game hunts. They might be seen running alongside hunters on horseback darting away from time to time to course and takedown an antelope.
Not only were the dogs instrumental in keeping lions at bay during expeditions, but they could also fend off other large wild animals such as leopards and baboons. They also proved intelligent enough to know when retreat was necessary.
Did Van Rooyen Breed for the Ridge?
The question is a good one, and for two reasons. First, not every Rhodesian Ridgeback is born with a ridge. And second, breeders discovered over the centuries that the ridged dogs were more likely than their non-ridged counterparts to survive the lion hunts.
But does that mean Van Rooyen consciously bred for the Khoi ridge? Perhaps. Or perhaps the lions simply and naturally eliminated more of the non-ridged dogs during hunting expeditions.
That may be something we’ll never know. Whatever it was, however, Van Rooyen was instrumental in incorporating the ridge as a hallmark trait of the eventual Rhodesian Ridgeback breed.
Can a Rhodesian Ridgeback dog kill a lion? No, one can’t. But the fact that these large, imposing dogs were bred early on for assisting in lion and other big game hunts has given the breed a formidable reputation. And that’s a double-edged sword.
Breeders of later generations have focused more on the companionability of the Rhodesian Ridgeback. They are intensely loyal dogs not in the least bit hesitant to attack an intruder in the protection of their families.
But while they may be a stubborn breed and require a firm hand when being trained and socialized, they can also be the most devoted and loving of pets.