Lineage: Labrador Retrievers Need Not Apply

Our dog was in a litter being handed out for free from the back of a truck at WalMart in Galax. A kind young girl suspected that, given away indiscriminately like this, some of the young “Shepherd-Lab mix” pups might end up back in Humane Society custody after being neglected or abused, in households unprepared for the considerable effort and time it takes to contain a puppy while it grows to resemble an intelligent being.

So mom and pups were taken off the hands of the Walmart Give-away person, and effort made through the Human Society to find intentional homes for the 8-week old pups. The mother dog, the girl told us, was definitely “mostly German Shepherd” and one of the three pups she brought for us to see was shaped and had the longer, denser hair of a Shepherd. But not Gandy.

And though they were advertised as being probably fathered by a Lab, we’ve decided that misses the mark. We know labs, by temperament and form, and this dog sleeping under my desk just now knows nothing of the wanting-to-please, quiet disposition of a lab. There is something else under the hood here.

There are practical reasons to want to know. We need to order a crate that will fit this dog as an adult. How big will she get? (I’ve seen the rule of thumb to double the weight at 14 weeks. She’ll be about 25# by then, so 50#. But how tall?) And we’re puzzled by her temperament, energy level, curiosity, intelligence and persistence. Who is this dog going to be?

We’ve thought maybe boxer, given the build and the coat, but the face is not right. We’ve wondered about pit bull, but she is so long of neck and leg.

Last night I happened to pick up the latest National Geographic, whose cover story is “What Dogs Teach Us.” The centerfold is a display of breeds. I did a double-take.

“THAT is our dog” I said out loud to no one. Almost all features fit, even though Gandy is definitely not pure to the breed. The long neck, the dark muzzle, long legs, copper coat and wrinkled brow. She even, when alarmed, shows the distinctive “ridge” that was so startling when Ann and I first noted it. “It’s like a mohawk!” we both said. And it is characteristic of the Rhodesian Ridgeback, or African Lion Dog. The image above is of pure-bred ridgeback puppies. Look familiar?

Even the description of the dog’s personality is a dead ringer:

“They are strong-willed, exceptionally clever, and many seem to have a penchant for mischief. Owners report them teaching themselves (and each other) how to escape crates and kennels, open even ‘child-locked’ cabinets and doors, and especially behind-your-back stealing of food.

…Despite his 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. Intelligent to a fault, the Ridgeback accepts correction as long as it is fair and justified, and as long as it comes from someone he knows and trusts.”

Man, does this hit the mark. Gandy returns blow for blow. She is not penitent when she does wrong, and will only escalate her resistance if confronted with force or punishment. But then, she can be a dear. We have yet to learn exactly where the switch is, or how to remove batteries.

Take a look at the Google Image gallery and compare to Gandy’s pix at Picasa. What do you think? Anybody been around this breed and have advice, suggestions or condolences?

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Amazing, Fred! I know that Ridgebacks are exceedingly beautiful dogs and I’ve seen well-behaved ones at the Dog Park here in Sarasota. There are fairly inexpensive DNA dog tests that you can have done by mail. I’ve never read up on whether they are accurate.
    I would add this: ANY puppy with you and Ann as its owners will turn out fine. ALL pups respond to patience, respect, gentle discipline and kindness.

  2. I’ve known people who have used the DNA tests and thought them accurate. My understanding is that breed differences show up in a few specific areas of the genome. It seems that you have pinned down the breeding. Intelligence is a real plus in a dog in my opinion, even if challenging at times. I agree with Becky that any pup in your household is a lucky animal and will be fine.

  3. Friends in Atlanta had a Ridgeback – very active, as I recall, but she was a fine animal. Well behaved indoors (as an adult), good with their kids & cats & guests. They gave her a long, hard run every morning, I think. Also they had a fenced back yard she could run in, though she was an escape artist. Good luck!

  4. A friend’s family had a Ridgeback when I was growing up. It as a beautiful and extremely loyal dog, not so sociable with strangers but very attached to the family.

    They were not the best dog-parents, so I think it was a little starved for affection. I don’t think it’s possible to overdo the affection!

  5. Dang. You’d think I was not able to keep my mind focused or something lately. Gallery link is fixed. Thanks for the heads-up NT.

    Yep, we’re hoping the Shepherd part will like strangers. So far, she is very sociable w people and other dogs.

  6. Hm….. the question did not come up earlier, Fred, but I always thought Gandy looked as though she might have some Ridgeback in her – her muzzle, face and colirning all say so. There is female Ridgeback in our neighborhood, and Tabitha is a grand girl.

  7. I’ll be honest: I never heard of the breed until I saw the Gandy-like picture in National Geographic. No mistake about it. Only question is, how much Shepherd in the mix. And how we’re going to find the way to the dog’s pack with sufficient seniority to make our shared life an enjoyable one. There are times I have my doubts, and times I have not a one that I will someday have forgotten these intensely-infantile and fluctuating moods of hers. We’ll still have the holes in our sweatpants to remember, though.

  8. Fred, my lab is as purebred as they come, but because she comes from field trial stock, she has never been mellow or laid back. When she gets riled by something (even while asleep) she resembles a razor-back hog. She is smart, smart, smart, and therefore always requires me to think ahead of her – ever the one to challenge. She is approaching 11 1/2 now, and still aspires to be the alpha in our pack, despite being slower and arthritic.
    I’m well-acquainted with labs, shepherds, and ridgebacks, and all I can tell you is Gandy will undoubtedly be smart and loyal to her people. Good dogs are made more than born, and with your steady guidance she’ll eventually be a marvelous companion. In the meantime, just grin and bear it!

  9. Please go to Dr. Andrew Weils Blog page, today, as he has an impresive entry about his two ridgebacks as well as a slew of pictures. If you are not familar with Weil’s web site, publications and medical practice do yourself a favor and look him up. He teaches integrative medicine at U. of Arizona, I believe. He is often seen with his dogs and comments about them. Enjoy, your faithful reader. We are currently in Florida but live in Bent Mt. VA.