The Basenji is square-proportioned and high on leg. This breed is far more slightly built and longer legged than most other primitive breeds, allowing a good amount of speed and the ability to perform the double-suspension gallop. The Basenji’s erect ears help locate game in thick bush and may act as heat dissipaters. This dog’s short coat also aids in dealing with the hot climate of Africa.
The Basenji is among the most primitive of breeds, discovered in the African Congo with Pygmy hunters. Early explorers called the dogs after the tribes that owned them or the area in which they were found, such as Zande dogs or Congo terriers. The native tribes used the dogs (which often wore a large bell) as pack hunters, driving game into nets.
Early attempts to bring the dogs to England in the late 1800s and early 1900s were unsuccessful because they all succumbed to distemper. In the 1930s, a few dogs were successfully brought back to England and became the foundation (along with subsequent imports from the Congo and Sudan) of the breed outside of Africa.
The name “Basenji,” meaning “bush thing,” was chosen. The early imports attracted much attention, and soon after dogs were brought to America. The breed’s popularity as a pet grew modestly but steadily. In the 1950s, a surge of popularity occurred as a result of a book and movie featuring a Basenji. The 1980s saw two important but controversial events for the Basenji in America. First, several Basenjis were brought from Africa in an attempt to widen the gene pool and combat some widespread hereditary health problems; some of these introduced the previously unrecognized brindle color into the breed. Second, the Basenji was recognized by the American Sighthound Field Association as a sighthound and allowed to compete in lure-coursing trials. This breed’s body structure and hunting style had previously been deemed too un-sighthound-like.
The Basenji has always been hard to categorize. This breed retains several primitive characteristics, most notably its lack of barking ability and its yearly, rather than twice yearly, estrus cycle.
Some consider Basenjis to have terrier-like mannerisms because they are feisty for a hound. More often they are considered catlike in mannerisms: clever, inquisitive, stubborn, independent, and reserved. Their hunting roots are very evident, as they love to chase and trail. They need regular mental and physical stimulation lest it become frustrated and destructive. Basenjis may be barkless, but they are not mute. They do make a sort of yodel, howl, and shriek—and occasionally bark, but just one or two “fox barks” at a time. This breed gets along fairly well with other dogs, but often poorly with other Basenjis.
The Basenji is an active dog that needs daily mental and physical exercise. Their needs can be met by a long walk followed by a vigorous game or by free-running in a safe enclosed area. Coat care is minimal, consisting of only occasional brushing to remove dead hair.