The breed's history dates back to early in the 18th century, when the first European settlers found dogs domesticated by Khoisan tribes with the hair on the spine turned forward. In the late 19th century, big game hunters needed a hunting dog that was tough, resistant to disease, and intelligent enough to avoid crocodiles and snakes, but brave and fast enough to face a lion. Also important was a tick repellent smooth coat, tight paw pads to protect against thorns and rough terrain. Cornelius Van Rooyen of Plumtree, Rhodesia was the main person behind the development of the breed.
The history of the breed is disputed. What is commonly accepted is that Van Rooyen used two ridged, rough-coated bitches from the Swellendam district brought to him by the Rev. Charles Helm in 1879. Van Rooyen crossed these bitches with members of his pack, noting that their ridged progeny excelled at lion hunting.
The Breed Standard is loosely based on that of a slightly enlarged Dalmatian and was first registered by the South African Kennel Club, SAKU (now KUSA) in 1924. At that time KUSA was the only Kennel Club in the territory. Ridgebacks were first brought to the United Staes by Col. Morris DePass and his wife Maj. Ruth DePass who raised the breed in Kiln, Mississippi. The breed was admitted into the American Kennel Club in 1955 as a member of the Hound Group. The first ridgebacks in Britain were shown by Mrs Edward Foljambe in 1928.
As hunters, Ridgebacks were sent out in packs of two or more (usually twenty) to track down, then corner and wear down a lion by taunting and goading it into confusion, this is known as keeping the lion "at bay". The dogs, working in revolving groups, kept the lion at bay until the hunter arrived to dispatch the occupied lion with a well placed rifle shot from relatively close range. Howewer, because the very vicious lion's reaction, this hunting method was a sort of suicide for the dogs and was used rarely.
The dogs themselves did not kill lions, but somehow over the years this fable began and still persists to this day. When not used for hunting, these dogs were family companions, guardians of the family and property, and cattle drovers.