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February 27, 2008

Breed Profile: Basenji

By: Keri Weyenberg

That is a literal translation of the word ‘basenji’ from the African pygmy language. It’s also a pretty good translation of a Basenji’s personality. These graceful and elegant dogs are not for the faint of heart. Instead they require an owner as spirited and adventurous as they are.

Basenjis are known by a wealth of other names. Originally titled by American and European societies as the Congo Terrier, they’re also commonly referred to as the African Barkless Dog. But don’t confuse barkless with silent, because he’s also referred to as the African Talking Dog. In his native Africa he’s known as the witch’s dog or M’bwa Mkube M’bwawamwitu, the jumping up and down dog.

To understand the Basenji’s unique personality it helps to look at his breeds’ origin. Hailing from the Congo region of Africa, which in now Zaire, Basenji’s are one of the oldest dogs in the world. Drawings from the tombs of Pharaohs dating back as far as 2700 BC depicted a Basenji-like silhouette lying at the feet of the kings. Nefertiti and Cleopatra were thought to have used these short-coated canines as bedwarmers. While no one is completely sure how they made it into Egypt it’s suggested that since Basenji’s were so highly prized as hunting dogs by the Pygmy people that they gave them as gifts to the Pharaohs.

Modern day African Tribesmen feel the same about their Basenjis as their ancestors did. One can still see packs of basenjis living around tribal communities today. With speed, endurance and a fearless nature, they are ultimate hunting dogs. A good hunter is considered the most valuable possession, especially in a country where food can be scarce. The term “witches’ dogs” for the African dog actually carries a positive connotation, because the more powerful the witch doctor is the more basenjis he owns.

The term ‘owned’ when speaking of the basenji in Africa is in a very loose sense. These guys are not cuddled up on someone’s couch in front of a warm fire. They actually still live in independent packs in or near the tribe, joining their owners only to hunt or eat. Most dog breeds have been produced by humans, carefully bred for certain physical or behavioral characteristics. Outside of being rewarded with extra food or other perks for being a better hunter, possibly giving a certain dog a mating advantage, Basenji evolution has been free from human intervention. Meaning that the current day Basenji looks and behaves pretty much the way his ancestors did.

The modern American Basenji isn’t that far removed from his African relatives, with the breed not even being fully introduced to American and European societies until the mid 1900s. Some breeders still import dogs from Africa to improve the genetic diversity for the rare breed, so being the small wild thing from the bush is never that far removed from a basenji’s history.

Most dogs rely on us for food and shelter and deep down want to make us happy. While a Basenji loves its owner, after thousands of years of providing for himself, he doesn’t ‘need’ anyone. He’s extremely intelligent and if given the option will be happy to run the household for you. While this requires a firm, ‘pack leader’ type owner, any type of negative reinforcement for bad behavior can cost the respect of the dog and he’ll stubbornly resist your attempts to ‘train.’ Most enthusiasts suggest new owners seek out a trainer with breed experience.

Basenjis should never be off leash. Their prey drive will almost always win out and their fearlessness means they will never give up pursuit of that squirrel. More Basenjis die from being hit by a car than from any other cause. That also means, unless they are raised with them, most of the dogs will see cats and other small animals as prey.

Since they are use to a pack environment, Basenjis love companionship and can make great family pets. While children should be respectful of all dogs, a basenji might not tolerate a child pulling ears and poking eyes as well as some others breeds, and the bad-mannered child could get a correcting nip.

Physically, Basenjis are stunning dogs. Everything about them says elegance. From their sleek coats, to their long legs that carry them in a gazelle-like run. The only thing that breaks the elegant line of their silhouette is the adorable wrinkles on his forehead that give him an intelligent and inquisitive appearance.

The Basenji’s overall grace and independent nature often suggests that they’re more like cats than dogs. Like any good feline, Basenjis love the sun and curling up on their owner’s favorite chair. They’re also fastidiously clean. If he gets dirty or wet, he licks himself clean and he’ll do the same for you if he thinks you need it.

Vocally, they aren’t as silent as cats. Oh sure, they’re called barkless, they might not sound like a Black Lab but they can make a host of other noises. Growls, screams, cries and howls are all part of the basenji’s vocabulary. An owner favorite is the ‘yodel,’ a unique sound they make when they’re happy.

Finding out more about this rare little dog can prove to be a challenge, but this is definitely a dog to fully understand before jumping into ownership. In fact most breeders and rescues will want to make sure a potential owner has done their homework before handing over a pup. Basenjis can have unique medical problems, so it helps to seek out a veterinarian experienced with the breed to answer any questions. Internet searches can help locate breeders, rescues and other enthusiasts, as there are not many locally. They may require the cost of a long distance phone call or a tank of gas for a visit, but in the end their information is priceless. If all else fails keep your eyes peeled at the dog park for that distinctive dog. While Basenji’s may not be for everyone, their owners adore their unique personality and would probably be happy to share the ups and downs of sharing a life with a little wild thing from the bush.

Keri Weyenberg has had the good fortune to have spent the majority of her life in the company of canines. She currently shares her home with Sophie, a Golden Retriever, and Rufus the rebel beagle.

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