The Basenji

Ancient African breed rediscovered


Upon hearing that the Basenji is a small barkless dog with an easy-care short coat, a person often jumps to the conclusion that this is the perfect apartment dog. Although a few of them do live in apartments or condominiums, their high activity level requires frequent walks or a fenced backyard.

Basenjis do not bark, but they do make noise, and a Basenji left alone can make quite a racket. One owner, a policeman, was surprised to find his house surrounded as he returned from a quick trip to the store. A neighbor, convinced that the noise he was hearing was a baby crying, had called the police. The breed's characteristic yodel or chortle can often sound like human laughter or crying.

First recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1943, the Basenji is a very old breed that is considered both a sighthound and a scent hound. In the Louvre museum in France sits a stone Basenji statue from a pharaoh's tomb, wearing the typical hunting bell. The statue is dated 5000 BC. The noise of the wooden bell helped drive game into the hunter's nets.

Legend has it that tribal chiefs made gifts of their hunting dogs to the pharaoh. On recent excursions to Zaire in central Africa, American Basenji fanciers found the native still using their "mongrel" dogs for hunting with nets. The keen intelligence and courage of the Basenji are still useful in his native land for hunting the reed rat, a vicious, long-toothed creature that can weigh up to 20 pounds. The Basenji is a proud, alert little dog. His attitude is one of poise and grace. With his swift, tireless gait, he is often compared to a small deer. The breed standard calls for a male to be 17 inches in height and 24 pounds in weight. Females should be 16 inches tall and 22 pounds. The standard also calls for a square dog, so they should be the same in length as they are in height, giving them a characteristic "high on the leg" appearance.

These dogs have a characteristic wrinkled forehead that gives them a puzzled look. They have a short, silky coat with a pliant skin and come in four colors<197> chestnut red, pure black, black and tan, and brindle. All colors should have white feet, chest, and tip of tail. White legs, face blaze, and collar are optional. The majority of Basenjis in the US and in the African bush are red and white.

Behavior and habits

The Basenjis fastidious nature and dainty habits have made them popular. They clean themselves all over, spending hours grooming themselves just like a cat. (They also sit on the back of furniture and gaze out the window.)

Temperament has become a problem with some Basenjis. Viciousness should not be tolerated. Puppies must be raised in a home environment with lots of human contact. Some experts feel that the Basenji is an early off-shoot of the domestic dog and hence is only semi-domesticated. Others feel that their high intelligence leads to antisocial and destructive behavior.

Recently, a Basenji owner who was preparing to take her dog for a walk answered the phone before heading out the door. The Basenji, finding his walk delayed, dug a hole in her couch. Obedience training is a must. All Basenjis should learn the basic commands of sit, stay, heel, and come.

Basenjis generally love children. Since youngsters and Basenjis can be very active, the continuous play can serve to wear everyone out.


Health problems in the breed include progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), Fanconi Syndrome (a kidney disease), hemolytic anemia, hypothyroidism, and malabsorption syndrome. PRA is a gradual onset blindness that begins at four-to-five years of age. Fanconi Syndrome also strikes the middle-aged dog. It is often fatal, but with new treatments dogs are able to survive. Both PRA and Fanconi Syndrome are currently under investigation by researchers.

Hemolytic anemia is a known recessive and has a low incidence due to breeder testing of stock. Hypothyroidism can be treated with replacement therapy. Malabsorption syndrome is also treatable and seems to have decreased in occurrence.

Most Basenjis live 10-13 years. One dog I know has reached the ripe old age of 22 years.

As an AKC recognized breed, Basenjis are a member of the hound group. As sighthounds, those hounds that hunt by sight rather than scent, they are eligible to compete in lure coursing trials. These functional tests for sighthounds are a cross-country version of Greyhound racing, intended to prove the dog's ability at the task for which he was developed.

At a lure coursing trial, a highly visible piece of white plastic -- a lure or "bunny" -- is attached to a continuous loop system run by a machine. The lure operator controls the speed at which the lure travels along the lines. The course is set in a field and must be at least 600 yards long and have at least four turns. Dogs are scored on overall ability, skill in following the lure, speed, agility, and endurance.

Dogs must be carefully conditioned to compete in lure coursing. Brisk walks of increasing length are necessary, as are periods of rest. Light workouts and days of rest should be interspersed with strenuous sessions. Dogs must be in top condition, free of parasites and physical problems, and on a good quality food.

For further information about lure coursing, contact the American Kennel Club, 51 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10010.

Basenjis also compete in obedience trials. Ten Basenjis have earned the Utility Dog title, the highest class title offered by AKC. Many Basenjis are also shown in the conformation ring,and quite a number of them have taken Best in Show.

To buy a Basenji

Before purchasing a Basenji, the prospective purchaser should visit owners and breeders. Basenjis tend to be aloof with strangers, but if you allow them to make the first overtures, you'll find a friend for life. If you would like more information about Basenjis, contact the Basenji Club of America:

[More on finding a dog]

Tracy A. Leonard, DVM

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