More cat-like than dog and unable to bark, the basenji is a breed like no other. For many, their quirks are too much to handle, but for some, there is no more perfect dog than this ancient yodeling canine from Africa.
If you’ve been taken by photos of this adorable breed–complete with forehead wrinkles and an ever-inquisitive stare–you’ll want to keep reading to see which of the above categories you fall into.
General Characteristics of the Basenji
- Other names: Dogs of the Villagers, Dog of the Bush, Congo Terrier
- Height: 17 inches
- Weight: 22 to 24 pounds
- Lifespan: 13 to 14 years
- Origin: Africa
- Colors: Red and white, black and white, brindle and white, tricolor
- Activity level: High
- Grooming needs: Minimal
- Best suited for: Active cat lovers, active city-dwellers, and families
These barkless dogs from Africa can be cuddly and affectionate one minute and then aloof and uninterested the next. It takes a special owner to care for these special dogs, but they are worth the work for the right person.
The History of the Basenji
It is possible that the basenji is one of the oldest dog breeds in the world.
Genetic testing has traced this breed’s lineage back to the first wolves domesticated by ancient peoples. Much like the dingo and New Guinea singing dog, these dogs were genetically isolated from other breeds early on. In fact, evidence of basenji-like dogs can be found in African artifacts over 6,000 years old.
Images of small pharaoh dogs adorned the walls of the Great Pyramid of Khufu around 2700 B.C. While these dogs are unlikely to have been the exact same as the basenji we know today, they did have very similar characteristics and were likely direct ancestors.
Through the millennia, the basenji breed moved gracefully between a domestic dog utilized by humans for hunting, to a wild dog that survived more or less on their own, waiting for the next civilization to move through and welcome them in. Large populations of these dogs existed at the mouth of the Nile as well as in the Congo.
This breed has been used for centuries to aid African tribesmen during hunts. These athletic dogs work in thick brush and forests to flush out antelope, small animals, and even lions. “Ritorno Alle Origini” by Fugzu / CC BY 2.0
It was in these dense forests of Northern Africa that European settlers first encountered the breed. Many described the “barkless dogs” used by natives to drive antelope and other small prey into nets during hunts.
These small, but athletic dogs were perfect for the task. They could move seamlessly through the dense landscape, climb trees, and jump high enough to spot prey over the tall grass in the clearings. Their inability to bark is thought to be a trait purposely selected by early tribesmen. A dog who worked silently was less likely to spook the prey or bring unwanted attention from rival villages.
This was less of a concern for 20th-century villagers, who often adorned their hunting dogs with large bells and played them off with exaggerated drum rituals and songs.
The first basenjis were brought to Europe in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, the breed, which had been isolated for centuries, was sensitive to local ailments and most died from distemper or early versions of the distemper vaccination. By the 1930s, enough dogs had been introduced to America and Europe to begin breeding the dogs locally. The breed was officially recognized by the AKC in 1943.
Today’s companion basenjis are all related in some way to this original stock. As recently as 2010, African expeditions have been held to bring additional stock back stateside to help invigorate the breed.
Back in their homeland, many of these dogs are still used for their original purposes by villagers.
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Find out more about the history of this unique breed in this episode of Dogs101.
The Temperament of the Basenji
The basenji has a temperament unlike any other dog breed. They are cat-like both in their actions and in how they interact with their humans.
These dogs are known for grooming themselves and have an unusual distaste for water and being wet. Much like cats, they prefer to only give affection on their terms and can’t always be bought off with treats.
Their history as hunting dogs gives these pups a hardwired prey drive that makes them a danger to have off-leash or uncontained. And containing them is not always an easy task. Not only do they have a surprising high vertical jump for a dog their size, but they are adept climbers.
While a barkless dog may seem the perfect choice for apartment living, these dogs are highly active and need an appropriate outlet for their energy. The especially active owner might get away with keeping one of these dogs in the city with frequent walks, hikes, and trips to the park, but they prefer to have a backyard. After all, chasing squirrels and rabbits is one of their favorite activities.
Early socialization is important for basenji puppies. Introducing them to many different dogs, people, and situations will help your dog grow into a confident adult. “Raduno basenji in Italia 2012” by Fugzu / CC BY 2.0
If left understimulated, the bush dogs can become highly destructive very quickly. They love to chew on clothing, furniture, and small objects left around the house. They are naturally curious and will get into just about anything. Your best defense against this type of behavior is controlling the environment and keeping them worn out.
These dogs excel at dog sports like coursing, tracking, and agility, but don’t think that means they are easy to train. They are highly intelligent but not in the same way that a border collie is. Training them can be difficult because they are so independent. But if you can find a way to motivate them, they will pick up on new commands quickly. They just might not always follow them.
Basenjis tend to be one-owner dogs, choosing one person in the house to cling to more than others. Still, they can be good family dogs as they are gentle, playful, and adventurous.
Because they can be aloof at times, these dogs are not the best choice for someone who wants a dog’s dog. But for the more experienced owner who wants the challenge of earning their pups respect, they are one of the better breeds. They are also excessively clean pets and make a good choice for the experienced cat owner who wants a pet to hike or explore with.
Health Issues Common to the Basenji Breed
Like many ancient breeds, these bush dogs are free from many of the detrimental health issues that plague a lot of modern breeds. Unfortunately, the basenjis who call Europe and the US home are all closely related, leading to a number of recessive gene diseases popping up in today’s populations.
So few of these dogs were brought over from Africa originally that many of the subsequent generations had severe health issues. Careful breeding programs reduced the problems but didn’t get rid of them completely, which is why it is so important to pick your breeder carefully. “4+1+1” by Fugzu / CC BY 2.0
Here are some of the more common problems seen in companion Basenjis:
- Fanconi syndrome (renal tube disease)
- Progressive retinal atrophy
- Persistent pupillary membrane
- Genetic hemolytic anemia
- Immunoproliferative enteropathy (malabsorption)
- Hip dysplasia
The simplest way to avoid these types of hereditary problems is to do thorough research of any breeder before you buy. Responsible breeders will test their stock for Fanconi syndrome and other genetic issues with DNA testing, while their vets can test for orthopedic problems and eye issues.
Fanconi syndrome, in particular, is one problem all owners should be aware of. In affected dogs, the tubes leading to the kidneys fail to reabsorb nutrients and electrolytes properly. This can lead to dehydration and kidney damage if left untreated. It most commonly occurs in adult dogs but can begin in old age as well.
Because Fanconi syndrome is so common to the breed, most vets recommend starting monthly urine tests at around three years of age. These tests can be done at home using urine-glucose test strips that detect the presence of sugar, one of the symptoms of the disease. Early diagnosis and treatment will help reduce the more severe complications of this disease such as organ failure.
This barkless African pooch is rare outside of its country of origin, but that doesn’t mean purchasing a pup from the breeder is the only way to get one. There are Basenji clubs across the country that work to rehome these dogs if their original owners are unable to care for them. Before committing to a puppy, consider saving one of their lives instead.
All Basenjis have large white aprons and white feet and can come in red, black, brindle, and tricolor.
Do Basenjis Do Well With Children and Other Pets?
While this dog may be standoffish with strangers, they are quite playful and warm with children and often make great family dogs.
Their size makes them a great choice for smaller children and their aloof nature is perfect for the short attention span of a toddler. They are also independent thinkers, which means they will willingly step away from any situation before it becomes overwhelming for them.
Of course, even these cat-like dogs require supervision anytime they are playing with children who are not yet old enough to play respectfully.
In Africa, these dogs were always used to hunt in packs and are capable of working with–or at least alongside–other dogs. In the home, most Basenjis are happy to share their home with other dogs, especially if they were socialized well as a puppy. But, much like cats, they can be finicky and contentious with their playmates.
Because these dogs were bred to hunt small prey, they are not well suited for houses with small pets like cats and birds. That isn’t to say they can’t get along with other animals, especially those they have known since puppyhood, but it should be expected that if a cat runs, they are going to chase it.
These dogs typically do well in multi-dog households, especially with other basenjis. They are not as accepting of cats, however, because of their high prey drive. “Jack & Saba” by Fugzu / CC BY 2.0
What to Consider Before Bringing Home a Basenji
Think the basenji is the perfect companion for you? Here are a few more things you’ll want to consider.
These dogs pack a lot of energy into a small package. Not only do they need consistent physical exercise, but, maybe even more so, they need a lot of mental exercise. Daily walks, or better yet jogs, are just the beginning. Puzzle toys, treat balls, and a lot of chew toys are a must. They also enjoy playtime in the yard. Young dogs, especially, will try your patience if not sufficiently tired out.
Don’t assume these dogs are dull just because they won’t sit when you tell them. The breed was perfected for use as an independent hunter who could move through the jungle without the direction of their owner. Unlike most companion dogs, they won’t do something just to benefit you. They will only do what you ask if it also benefits them.
For this reason, training them can be a challenge. Coercive and punitive methods will not work with these dogs. Instead, you need to use positive reinforcement training tailored to what motivates them to act. Puzzle-solving, prey drive, and other instinctive tendencies will all come into play. Starting puppies in obedience class young will also help form good habits early on.
The bush dog is built for maneuvering quickly in dense undergrowth. Their fox-like head is equipped with two large ears and two sensitive eyes for detecting prey while their tightly curled tail can stretch out to act like a rutter. “Sabi” by Fugzu / CC BY 2.0
When it comes to grooming, there are few dogs easier to care for than the Basenji. Like cats, they will spend hours each day grooming themselves. They also tend to avoid messy or wet situations. Most remarkably, these dogs do not have the typical scent of a dog.
Unless their curiosity gets them into a sticky situation, they don’t need to be bathed. The occasional brush will suffice to maintain a healthy coat since they aren’t big shedders. They will need their nails trimmed frequently like any other dog.
These dogs do well on any high-quality commercial or homemade food. They can be finicky eaters and may require the occasional diet change to keep them interested. They are not prone to weight gain, but, because of their propensity for hip dysplasia, it is a good idea to be extra careful about their weight.
Despite being a rarer breed, the average basenji pup costs about as much as any other high-demand dog at just under $1,000. Though, it is not uncommon to find more desirable lines going for closer to $4,000.
Assuming you do your homework upfront and find a careful breeder, you can avoid the expenses that come with the breed’s unique health issues.
>>>Think owning a dog is cheap? Find out what a dog will really cost you.
10 Fun Facts About the Basenji
Now that you know what it takes to be a Basenji owner, here are some lesser-known facts about the breed.
- While these dogs don’t bark, they do make a plethora of noises, including whimpers, yodels, and even screams.
- Like other ancient breeds, such as the Tibetan mastiff, these dogs only go into estrus once a year.
- All basenjis have white feet and white markings on the chest.
The reason these dogs are barkless is because their larynx is shaped differently from other dogs’. They can make a number of vocalizations but none sound like a normal bark. “Basenji delle Caserosse” by Fugzu / CC BY 2.0
- Unlike most dogs, this breed has no discernible odor.
- Despite their small size, these dogs have been used to lure lions into the open for hunters to spear. Their agility and quickness make them a good match for even powerful beasts.
- Basenjis have a very unique gait that allows them to gallop quickly across open ground.
- They are adept at climbing chain link fences and can be difficult to contain.
- When running at full speed, they will often uncurl their tail to help maintain balance as they cut through the undergrowth.
- They rank very low on intelligence tests because they don’t often listen to commands, but they are very good at problem-solving.
- They are not particularly keen on going outside at night, preferring to be active in the daytime when large predators would typically be asleep.
Before You Go
Not so sure the basenji is dog enough for you? Here are some other breeds worth considering.
Sara Seitz has spent most of her life in the pet industry and has a bachelors in animal behavior from Colorado State University. Sara started working with dogs and cats as a high schooler at a rural boarding kennel. There she learned a lot about the bad and the ugly of the pet service industry. But not even the toughest day at that job would dissuade Sara from following her dream of working with animals.
In college, Sara got a job at a dog daycare and boarding facility in Fort Collins, Colorado. Her new career provided even more opportunities for learning about dog behavior than her classes did. As general manager of the daycare, Sara helped the company launch a new in-home pet sitting branch and trained to become a certified dog trainer. Between shifts taking care of peoples pets in-home and supervising dogs during playtime at the daycare, Sara organized and taught obedience classes.
Sara has always been passionate about bettering the lives of our canine companions. She soon found that advocating for and educating owners in the power of positive reinforcement training was one of the best ways to help dogs and their owners live happier lives.