The Other End of the Leash

By Denise Flaim

About a year ago, a Ridgebacker posted to rr-folk, the breed's popular email list, expressing concern at the temperaments she had seen in the breed ring that weekend: Dogs that growled. Dogs that shied away from the judge and refused to be examined. Dogs that bucked like broncos and pulled their handlers to the exit.

I've seen those displays plenty of times before. But oftentimes, its not the dogs -- or their breeding -- that is to blame. Instead, it's the other end of the lead that deserves the scrutiny.

With his incredible athleticism and imposing presence, a Ridgeback looks like a tough guy who can handle whatever the world can dish out. In part, this is true: The Ridgeback has great courage and stamina. But he is a thinking dog, a hound with a sensitive, soft nature beneath that brave exterior. One would not expect an Afghan to respond gleefully to a collar pop. Why should a Ridgeback be any different?

Heavy-handed tactics have little success on Ridgebacks, yet it is not uncommon to see some handlers stringing up dogs, jerking their leads, popping them under the jaw, even yanking their private parts. Forceful handling that a sporting or herding dog might take in stride can send a Ridgeback into a tailspin, especially if it is administered by a handler whom the dog does not know or, more importantly, trust.

As with most things, breed history speaks volumes on this subject. Ridgebacks were bred to hunt large and dangerous game, relying on their own intelligence and judgment. These dogs are not hard-wired to consult their handlers; in the field, that kind of distraction meant the difference between life and death. So with the Ridgeback, as with most hounds and terriers, human omniscience is not a given.

As a result, if a Ridgeback is confronted with a new experience with which he is not comfortable, he will not reflexively cede to the will of his handler. I once saw this point delivered wordlessly but most elegantly by a Ridgeback bitch who not only reared up and bolted from her handler in the ring, but gave him a shiner in the process.

Does this mean that Ridgebacks cannot be made to mind a handler? Of course not. But it does mean that the intelligence of the breed must be respected. If a handler has true understanding of this breed, he or she knows how to build trust and how to negotiate with the dog to arrive at the same place together, both literally and figuratively. This may go a long way toward explaining why Ridgebacks seem to show so much more willingly for female handlers, who, at the risk of indulging gender stereotypes, can be more flexible and intuitive.

When you next see a Ridgeback, resist the temptation to see him as a rusty-colored Lab on steroids. Look behind his unwavering stare and try and glimpse the sensitive soul beneath. It is a something so intrinsic to the breed that Francis R. Barnes, who wrote the original South African standard, commented on it more than 75 years ago.

"Rough treatment ... should never be administered to these dogs, especially when they are young," he advised. "They go to pieces with handling of that kind."

This article originally appeared in the November 2002 issue of the AKC Gazette. It may not be reprinted or reproduced without the express written permission of the author.

Approaching the Ridgeback

By Denise Flaim

When it comes to a judge's decisions in distributing ribbons, there's no pleasing all of the people -- much less all the exhibitors -- all of the time. But what is universally appreciated by Ridgeback fanciers is a judge who knows how to approach our dogs.

The Ridgeback standard calls for a dog that is "devoted and affectionate to his master, reserved with strangers." "Reserved" is hardly the same as "wary"; a Ridgeback never responds to the approach of someone he does not know with aggression or intolerance. Instead, he will observe, calmly and intently, doing an excellent impression of a marble statue as he tries to understand the newcomer's intent. If the stranger is relaxed and calm, the Ridgeback will respond in kind. Ours is not a suspicious breed, but rather a deeply intuitive and intelligent one. If you are nervous, they figure you have cause to be.

Some judges, especially those who hail from the Working Group, misinterpret the Ridgeback's intense gaze as a challenge and threat instead of what it truly is -- a simple, honest, thoughtful study. If the judge shows apprehension, this initiates a self-fulfilling prophecy: The Ridgeback might shrink away, lean against his handler or break his stack.

Perhaps the biggest trap judges fall into in understanding Ridgeback temperament is going no further than the breed's imposing exterior. Some do not appreciate that under the stoicism there is a sensitive soul not very far removed from his sighthound roots. He is just as brainy as he is athletic, with a houndy independence does not permit him to automatically believe the assurances of his handler, as a Sporting dog might. For this reason, a handler who corrects or jerks an anxious Ridgeback in the ring often has the opposite effect intended.

In contrast to the heavy-handed judge who scrutinizes teeth as if they were tea leaves and slaps rears in a locker-room flashback is the one who attempts to "baby" a nervous Ridgeback by cooing and lingering. If a dog is worried about a stranger's intentions, such cloying behavior will likely only exacerbate that concern. As with many things in this breed, the middle ground -– calm, gentle and collected -- is best.

Another bugaboo of Ridgeback handlers is the judge who swoops in from behind. The correct way to approach a Ridgeback is from his line of sight; these are agile hunters who do not appreciate being "ambushed." The judge who touches a flank unannounced, causing a Ridgeback to whip around, has no one to blame for the dog's poor performance but himself.

Similarly, judges who force puppies to stand for an exhaustive exam when they are clearly overwhelmed are not doing that dog any favors. Yes, puppies should have some training for the ring. But the Ridgeback's first impressions are lasting ones, and pushing a puppy too far can create a negative association that will be hard, if not impossible, to extinguish. The show ring is not the place to "teach" a panicked Ridgeback puppy how to behave. Instead, a quick, smooth exam that ends on a positive note -- ideally, proferring a piece of bait -- is infinitely preferable.

If they are anything, Ridgebacks are impeccable judges of character. They know when a judge of the human variety likes and understands their breed. And they know -- mirroring it back quite plainly -- when one does not.

(c) 2006 Denise Flaim. This article originally appeared in the August 2006 issue of the AKC Gazette. It may not be distributed or reprinted without the express written permission of the author.