Adopting a Rhodesian Ridgeback
After half a lifetime sharing our home with a succession of identical, wilful, glorious Golden Retrievers, my family was persuaded to take on a adult Rhodesian Ridgeback bitch whilst we were temporarily dog-less. The rationale was that we needed a big dog to guard the house following a series of unsuccessful but highly upsetting attempted burglaries.
The Ridgeback – inappropriately named Suki, a name we thought better suited to a Yorkshire terrier – was already six years old and needed rehoming from a family expecting a second child in a cramped cottage and no longer able to care for her.
From the outset, it was clear our care for this intimidating and imposing beast was going to be very different from our soppy retrievers. We felt rather overawed when we met her - she was such an enormous, powerful and heavy dog. She greeted us politely enough but with a business-like restraint and lack of enthusiasm. It was clear that she was checking us out and over the course of the next few weeks we watched in increasing amazement as she adapted to the ways of our household, in particular, her acquisition of her set of House Rules that she intended to use to live within our family unit – or from her point of view - her adoptive pack.
Her first task seemed to be to define the family unit. This was easy as it contained myself, my husband and my sons. My husband was a little apprehensive about the need to be in charge of her and decided to be responsible for her feeding, reasoning that this would put him in a dominant position in pack terms. Sadly, for him anyway, she seemed to see “food providing” as a subordinate role and, instead, regarded me as the Pack Leader. As the Queen Bee of her world I was rewarded with her devotion and she would rarely leave my side when I was around, lying on my feet when I was sitting and sleeping on the floor by my side of the bed.
Having defined the family unit, she added to her own approved Visitor’s List as other family members and friends visited. If introduced properly and told that the visitor was a “friend” and was welcome she would behave to them as to a member of her “pack” and never needed to be told twice. Casual callers and strangers were not accepted. If we were uncertain about a caller our body language would betray us and she would become very still, silent, and watchful. This was, we became aware, very dangerous as many people could not read her body language and took her passive silence to be non-aggressive. The only strangers that were exempt were policemen, indeed anyone in uniform or a fluorescent jacket with whom she behaved with an uncharacteristic flirtiness, leaning against their legs, and being very soppy. We had particular difficulty with people with whom we were friends but not all family members necessarily liked in the same way. She would pick up on any tension, even if we were not conscious of this ourselves, and communicate her unease and though she never attacked or bit anybody, this waryness led to some uncomfortable moments, and a couple of friends stopped dropping in on us.
Her House Rules were rapidly acquired. The second night we invited her upstairs to sleep. She immediately jumped on our bed. Told “no” she jumped down and went to her basket. She never again jumped on the bed at night time. A month or so later she came up with me during the day when I had a migraine and jumped on the bed. I let her stay and she slept with me all afternoon leaning against my back. From then on her House Rule was redefined. She could sleep on the bed with me during the day but not at night. The cats, of course, obeyed no rules whatsoever and she would police the bedroom chasing off any cat who broke her acquired House Rule by sleeping on the bed. We told her not to go on the sofa, or take food off the table. She only needed to be told once, and having established the Rules she made sure the cats obeyed them too, snapping at their fur if she caught them in flagrante. Although she could easily reach any surface in the house she never stole food or took anything that was not hers.
Out of doors, she coped easily with being off the lead, never straying far on our walks. We became aware she had a sense of humour when we watched her silently stalk a fisherman, almost invisible down on the river bank, creeping up behind him and letting off a single deep back just behind his ear. He nearly fell into the river when he looked round and saw at his head height our enormous dog looking down at him.
It was on our walks that we really became aware of how powerful an animal she was. If excited she had a habit of running around us in a loose figure of eight, running straight at us and veering away at the last minute. This could be quite frightening and sometimes she would turn at the last minute barging her considerable weight into us. An early House Rule, imposed by me and not one of hers, was to stop her jumping up on us outside. This was after she leapt in the air and grabbed my arm when I was playing with her in the garden. Though I was aware she was being playful and it was not an attack it was a painful experience and not one she was allowed to repeat. In fact, she had little notion of play and if you threw a stick for her or a ball, she would stop, look at us, raise her eyebrows and her expression was clear, as if to say “you threw it, you get it”
Her quietness when out with me meant we had many encounters with wildlife that I would not have had with any other dog. Deer and hares did not of course stay around once they had spotted her, but on one memorable occasion she and I watched a dog otter swimming along the river. She saw him and froze and the otter did not panic though she was in clear view. To him this giant dog was no more frightening than a cow. I knew the otter was safe from her as long as he stayed in the water as she would under no circumstances go into water and disliked even shallow puddles.
We had her for her last three years of life. She died too young after developing a tumour on her leg, a breed defect that is common amongst these rather inbred dogs. Ridgebacks are not a dog I would recommend, there is no place for a dog bred to track lions in the South African veldt in the average English family. But we do miss her and her absence has left a large hole in our lives. We were privileged to have known her and to have been her temporary pack for those few magic years.