Behind the Breed: The Basenji

Behind the Breed: Basenji

By Michele Forto

Behind the breed is an ongoing series to assist in you choosing the right breed for yourself and family.

The Basenji – popularly known as the “Barkless Dog” is one of the oldest breeds. The first specimens were brought from the source of the Nile as presents to the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Later, when the civilization of Egypt declined and fell, the Basenji lapsed into obscurity. It was, however still valued and preserved in its native Central Africa, where it was highly prized for its intelligence, speed hunting power, and silence.

Centuries later an English explorer rediscovered the Basenji and a pair were brought to England in 1895. Unfortunately, these little dogs contracted distemper and shortly thereafter died. Aside from that abortive attempt to make the breed known, the “outside,” world in general did not hear of the Basenji until 1937, when it was successfully introduced to England. At the same time, a pair was brought to America by Mrs. Bryon Rogers, of New York City. Unfortunately for America this pair and a litter of puppies produced from mating these specimens contracted distemper. All died except the older male dog, Bois.

In 1941 a young female, Congo, and Bois, both African-bred were mated, resulting in the first litter of Basenji puppies to be raised to maturity in America. Later, other Basenji’s were imported from the Canadian kennels of Dr. A.R.B. Richmond, and still others were brought over from England.

Dog lovers all over the country became interested in this breed so old, yet so new in America and later purchased young specimens as foundation breeding stock. The Basenji Club of America was formed in 1942 and accepted the breed standard as drawn up by the Basenji Club of England. In 1943, the American Kennel Club accepted the standard. Within a few months, there were 59 Basenji’s registered. Several dedicated Basenji breeders went to the Congo/Zaire in 1987 and 1988 and brought back new stock with the goal of increasing the very limited gene pool.

The Basenji is about the size and build of a Fox Terrier. The first impression one gets of a Basenji is that he is a proud little dog, and then one is impressed with his beauty, grace, and intelligence. In fact, he has often been compared to a little deer.

The coat of the Basenji is one of his most beautiful features. Appropriate to its native tropical climate, the coat is short and fine and shines in the sun. In colder countries the coat tends to become more course, but it never loses its brilliant luster. Other distinctive features include the lack of bark; the forehead deeply furrowed with wrinkles; the prick ears; the dark, intelligence, far-seeing eyes; and the tail curled forward to one side.

The Basenji’s intelligence and courage stands proven by his use in his native habitat. The natives use him for pointing, retrieving, for driving game into nets, and for hunting wounded quarry. He is also used for hunting the reed rats-vicious long-tooth creatures weighing from 12 to 20 pounds-and here his silence is a particularly valuable asset.

Those in America as well as England, Europe, and Australia who have had the opportunity to know the little Basenji have found him to be an interesting companion. He is a fascinating and endearing fellow, full of play, curious and active. His fastidious, dainty habits, such as cleaning himself all over like a cat and his lack of doggy odor, are assets in a house dog.

The Basenji’s distinctive sound of happiness fairly thrills one, yet it is a sound hard to describe. It is somewhere between a chortle and a yodel. He is usually very happy when he makes it and one can’t help but share the happiness with him.

For uncounted thousands of years the Basenji survived as a hunting dog. Great importance must have been given to intelligence and adaptability, for the dogs often worked out of sight of the hunters. At times the Basenji can still be quite independent and aloof. It is alert and careful with strangers, open and calm with friends, loving and solicitous with children. When meeting strangers, Basenji’s prefer to make the first overture and should not be approached from behind. Although not high-strung the Basenji should be an alert, active, curious dog.  (The Complete Dog Book, AKC 20th Ed.)

The Basenji is a breed I highly recommend.  Basenji’s are a hearty breed capable of keeping up with you on long hikes, they make great playmates for fetch games, they are highly trainable and enjoy learning new things all of the time.

Over the years, I have only trained a handful of these little guys, and every time I am impressed by their cunning abilities.  You don’t see them very often in agility, rally, or any of the more popular dog sports.  A Basenji, not only makes a great companion for someone in a small apartment but for someone in a large home with property.  They make great tracking dogs, which is becoming a more popular dog sport.  Basenji’s enjoy bikejoring and bladejoring.  I recommend Basenji’s for a first time pet owner because of their ease in care and willingness to learn.

I truly enjoy this breed and look forward to the next one I help to train.  The Basenji is by far the breed I most recommend to retiree’s, young families, college students, and anyone looking for a companion with keen skills.

There are many Basenji rescues out there; as such there are many Basenji mixes.  With any mixed breed be cautious reading referrals; do not just focus on the breed you think the dog most resembles instead learn about all of the possible breeds and this will help you with training and understanding behavior traits.

I am a Breed Referral Specialist, if you’re interested in getting a Basenji please feel free to contact me at anytime through my website.

What is your favorite breed of dog and why? We would love to know. Contact us at

Tags: Denver Dog Training Examiner | Robert Forto | Michele Forto | Iditarod | Team Ineka | Dog Training Denver | Dog Doctor Radio | Denver Dog Works | Mushing Radio | Duluth Dog Works | Minnesota Dog Works


Michele Forto is the Denver Dog Training Examiner and the business manager for Denver Dog Works. Michele can be reached through her website at

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