Hysterically Funny Breed Emerges From a Place You’d Never Expect

basenji dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Perhaps one of the oldest domesticated dogs, basenjis were traditionally used by African tribes as pack animals and to warn of approaching danger
  • The first basenji imports to Britain in the late 1800s died of distemper, as did several of them sent to the U.S. until 1941, until a male, Bois, and a female, Congo, were brought in from Africa, and the pair produced their first litter
  • Basenjis have a great deal of energy and a propensity for destruction when bored, so healthy activities such as agility courses, obedience, rally and tracking may curb their enthusiasm, as can socialization and training from an early age
  • These dogs don’t bark much, but you may be amazed at the range of vocalizations they make; there are several national rescue organizations that can help you locate your next forever dog

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

It's always fun to be around people who make you laugh, but when you have a dog who makes you chuckle on a regular basis, like the basenji, dubbed a "hilarious handful," you can't take yourself too seriously. However, there's also the suggestion that you may have to have a sense of humor to live with him, no doubt due to a few prominent personality traits: intelligence, independence and curiosity.

Speaking of curiosity, one of the most curious characteristics about these dogs is that they don't seem to feel the need to say something more than once, as they're known for barking once and being done. Basenjis do bark, but usually only once, and then they hold their peace. This trait could be interpreted as either quiet or uncommunicative, but as a hunting companion, the merits of silence may have been instilled in their DNA.

Another interesting aspect of this breed is that it may be one of the oldest domesticated dogs, and in fact may be only partially domesticated. Many experts suggest the breed may be as old as the Pharaohs. Images of very similar canines are illustrated on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs, although there's no real evidence to prove it, according to Vetstreet, which describes several more interesting aspects of their history:

"Dogs that superficially resembled the modern-day basenji may certainly have existed for thousands of years, but the breed as we know it today has been around for just a little more than a century … What is known is that Europeans found small, shorthaired hunting dogs in the remote forests of Central Africa — the Congo, as it was known then — as well as in Sudan and Zaire. Their job was to find prey and flush it so that it ran into cunningly laid nets."1

Basenjis were traditionally used by African tribes as pack animals and to warn of approaching danger. This of course meant that the bark of these dogs was not considered idle chatter. Unfortunately, when a pair of basenjis was imported into Britain in 1895, both died of distemper.

In 1937, more were sent to Britain without problems, but every dog of this breed sent to the U.S. ended up dying of the same disease — except for a male named Bois, and in 1941, a female basenji named Congo was brought in from Africa. The two produced their first litter, later joined by more basenji imports from Canada and Britain. The American Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1943, but to this day, the basenji remains a rare breed in the U.S.

Personality Traits and Tendencies

Adjectives describing the basenji may seem a little contradictory, such as endearing but mischievous, affectionate but independent and smart but sneaky. Dogtime describes a few of the more interesting characteristics of basenjis, especially in comparison with other canines:

  • Basenjis survived for millennia as independent creatures with no inclination to obey humans, so training may be a challenge when they pick and choose to listen, but patience and consistency are key; harshness or force will likely produce a confused, aggressive, even more stubborn dog. You may get the best results with such positive reinforcement techniques as praise, play and food rewards.
  • Like a pup on caffeine, they have a great deal of energy, so activities such as agility and coursing, obedience, rally and tracking may curb their enthusiasm and make much better use of his penchant for action, which may also include much-needed socialization and puppy training from an early age.
  • Basenjis can be very destructive if you don't provide daily, constructive outlets for their seemingly boundless energy. Crating is recommended when unsupervised, as any item left in reach can become a chew toy. Vetstreet quips, "If you are highly attached to your possessions, don't get a basenji."2 Also, they're talented escape artists, even with an electric fence, so beware; their wanderlust potential is high.
  • While they may be OK with cats when raised with them, basenjis have a strong prey drive and should not be trusted off leash with hamsters, gerbils, rats, ferrets, mice, guinea pigs or birds, and outdoors, squirrels and chipmunks may not be caught, but they will be chased. They're also best in homes with older children.
  • While it's true they don't bark much, you may be amazed at the range of vocalizations they make, combining yips, yodels, whines and screams with growls and chortles they may produce, such as the crowing sound they make when they're happy.

Be sure to include plenty of exercise for your basenji. They do great when a long walk (with a leash) is part of their daily routine and, if possible, an area for them to run in a safe, fenced area with no traffic or possibility of a small animal to distract them. These dogs should live indoors where they're part of the family rhythm, with plenty of attention and interaction. These dogs do best with a daily "job" to do, so starting scent work or enrolling in ongoing, interactive classes is a wise idea.

Basenji Physical Traits

If you've ever seen a basenji in person, you may have noticed a series of well-placed wrinkles on their brows that give them a perpetually worried or earnest expression. It's one of the things people often comment regarding their "cute" and "endearing" persona. Other noticeable qualities include a rather short tail that curls or coils over their backs.

Besides living to be 10 to 12 years old, other features include large, pointed or prick ears and almond-shaped eyes. They stand about 16 inches at the shoulder and weigh around 23 pounds. Basenjis have short, odorless coats that are easy to brush once a week or so, and they shed very little.

The basenji breed is a member of the pariah dog family, making their appearance and characteristics "primitive." They were originally red and white, black, tan and white, (known as tricolor) or black and white, any of them having some patches and spots here and there. However, a quest to add more color variations resulted in a trip to Zaire in 1987 and '88, which led to the introduction of 14 new bloodlines and the addition of a tiger striped brindle coat.

One of the most interesting things about the basenji's reproductive metabolism is that females cycle only once a year, compared to twice a year for most other domesticated dogs. That means many female basenjis go into heat only once a year, one of the breed's primitive characteristics, so most basenji puppies are born somewhere between October and December.

Genetic Health Predispositions to Watch For

According to basenji.org, the basenji is generally a very healthy breed, but two significant diseases, progressive retinal atrophy and Fanconi syndrome, occur most often. Below is additional information on these disorders and others prevalent to the basenji breed:

Fanconi syndrome — A late-onset kidney problem; basenji.org3 says breeders can now test for Fanconi, but some basenjis born beforehand may still develop the syndrome

Immunoproliferative small intestinal disease — This inflammatory bowel disease common to basenjis affects the colon, liver, endocrine system, kidneys and skin, and nutritional absorption and digestion

Pyruvate kinase deficiency (PKD) — A defect described by Animal Genetics4 as a mutated form of pyruvate kinase, an enzyme in cellular metabolism, causing the red blood cells to die, leading to hemolytic anemia

Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) — This inherited disease causes eyesight degeneration over a period of months to years, usually beginning at an early age

Persistent pupillary membranes (PPMs) — These are strands of tissue that fill the cornea that should have dissolved but remain, causing cloudy spots that affect the dog's vision

Coloboma — AKA optic nerve coloboma, this optic nerve disease is often seen in collies, involving incomplete development of the optic nerve that leaves a "pitted" area and resulting impaired vision, Pet Place5 explains

Autoimmune thyroiditis — The dog's immune system develops antibodies that begin destroying its own thyroid gland cells, remaining cells are unable to produce enough thyroid hormone

Umbilical hernia — Evidenced by an outward bulging on the dog's abdomen through the area around the navel

The Basenji Club of America (BCOA)6 recommends that dogs meant for breeding should be cleared by a veterinary ophthalmologist of coloboma, persistent pupillary membrane and PRA; have a recent negative test for Fanconi syndrome; be tested clear for pyruvate kinase deficiency; and have Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA)7 certification for hips.

The BCOA also participates in the Canine Health Information Center (CHIC)8 program, which requires certain evaluations for certification, including hip and thyroid evaluations from the OFA, an eye clearance from the Canine Eye Registry Foundation9 and a direct gene test for Fanconi syndrome. The eye clearance must be updated annually until the dog is 6 years old, then every two years. Regarding the PPMs mentioned above, Animal Eye Care notes "implications" for pet owners:

"Most dogs with PPMs are not severely affected. The condition is not progressive and does not require any treatment. It is very rare, except in basenjis for the PPMs to cause vision or any other problems…"10

Where to Look for Your Ideal Basenji

Perhaps you're intrigued by the breed, but personnel at rescue centers will likely tell you that many people have opted for a basenji only to find the breed didn't work for their household, so they relinquished them. When you contact an animal shelter or animal rescue organization, Vetstreet advises, make sure you have a solid contract so everyone knows their individual responsibilities and expectations.

If you're interested in getting a dog with the basenji's personality and talents, rather than going through a breeder ask your veterinarian about the possible availability of a retired show or breeding dog or one who needs a new home. Perhaps an adult basenji would be better suited for your lifestyle than a puppy, which may be a lot of fun, but requires an inordinate amount of time, patience and training to become the dog you're hoping for.

Plus adult dogs are usually less active, have some training and will end up being far less demanding (and destructive) than a youngster. If you peruse the "pets needing homes" section of local, online periodicals, newspapers and social media, you may find the dog you're looking for to be your forever companion. Try posting what you're hoping for so your "friend" community can be on the lookout. Here are some other ways to find the right dog from a rescue center or shelter:

  • Use the web. Petfinder.com11 and Adopt-a-pet.com12 are two sites to look at as sources of the basenji you're looking for. You can be specific about what you'd like, such as a dog that's calm around children, for instance. AnimalShelter.org13 can point you to animal rescue groups in your area.
  • Get in touch with area experts. Call or email the pet pros in your area, such as veterinarians, dog sitters, dog walkers and pet groomers, about your quest for a basenji. Those individuals are far more "in the know" for recommendations you can trust.
  • Try contacting breed clubs. While breed clubs may not be where you might think of on your quest, individuals in such organizations may be aware of homeless dogs who need a home.

Last, but certainly not least, if and when you're able to find a basenji to adopt, make an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as possible so that he or she will be able to identify potential problems. The next step will likely be establishing a healthy regimen, including a species-appropriate diet that's all-natural and chemical-free.