Recent DNA testing proves the long-held theory that the Basenji is one of the oldest dog breeds on earth. Cave paintings in Libya from 6,000 B.C., depict Basenji-like dogs. Basenjis have lived with the Pygmy tribes Central Africa for thousands of years in an that runs from the Congo Basin to South Sudan. According to the AKC the Basenji, a member of the Hound Group, originated at the headwaters of the Nile and Congo Rivers. The tombs of the ancient Egyptian Pharoahs dating as far back as 3000 B.C. are illustrated with Basenjis in the roles of hunter and of palace pet. Basenji dogs were probably brought from Central Africa as gifts to the Pharaohs. When the ancient Egyptian civilization crumbled and fell, the Basenji breed was then preserved in Central Africa.
The Basingi's agility, compact strength, speed, and silence, made them valued hunting dogs for the tribes who used them for pointing, retrieving, tracking wounded quarry, and driving game into nets. The Basenji remained largely a natural breed for thousands of years, unmodified by humans as far as color, size, shape, temperament, and coat texture. However the traits that made them such great hunting dogs, meant that those less agile, strong, and stealthy (that is, less suited for hunting) were probably eaten by the tribes people. To this day Basenjis live among the Pygmies, who are themselves one of the oldest cultures in Africa, in virtually the same manner as they have for thousands of years. Basenjis are purported to be so revered by the tribes that the dogs cost more than a wife, have equal rights with their masters, and even at times sleep inside a hut while the owner sleeps outside.
Author Edward C. Ash notes in his book, Dogs and Their Development, that in 1682 Father Merolla da Sorrento described in his travel writing a dog he saw in the Congo that was a match for the Basenji. Other explorers wrote about dogs in Africa as well, but it wasn't until 1868 when Dr. George Schweinfurth, traveling in Central Africa to study the flora and fauna, offered what is considered the first truly reliable description of Basenjis living among the Pygmies.
There were several early attempts made in England to successfully breed Basenji’s, most of which met with failure. The first being in 1895, when Europeans brought Basenjis to England for the first time where they were exhibited at Crufts’ Show as African Bush Dogs or Congo Terriers. Unfortunately they died of distemper soon after the show. The next attempt in 1923 was by Lady Helen Nutting, while living in Khartoum, Sudan, she became intrigued by the little Zande dogs, she often came across in her travels. Expressing her interest in them, six of them would later be sent to her by Major L. N. Brown who had acquired them from the native peoples to the west of Meridi, between the rivers Ibba and Sueh beyond the Bahr-el-Gahazal region of the Nile, one of the most remote and inaccessible parts of Central Africa. Upon leaving the Sudan to return to England she decided to bring her 6 Basenjis with her, so they were placed in a large traveling crate, loaded aboard a ship and secured to the top deck for the long voyage to England. It was March of 1923 and although it was cold and windy from Marseilles to Tilbury, the dogs remained in perfect health. Upon reaching England the six dogs were placed in quarantine and all possible care and consideration was given to their welfare; however, after receiving their vaccinations, including distemper, all of the dogs quickly fell ill and died.
It wasn't until 1936 that Mrs. Olivia Burn became the first person to successfully breed Basenjis in England. She exhibited the first litter of puppies to survive at Crufts’ Dog Show in 1937, where the Basenjis were a huge hit. She also wrote an article that same year on “The Barkless Dog of the Congo" which appeared in The American Kennel Gazette. In 1939 the first club in the world for Basenji enthusiasts, The Basenji Club of Great Britain, was founded.
While on the other side of the ocean Basenjis made their ‘official’ debut in America in 1941 thanks efforts of the world renounced animal importer Henry Trefflich (the "Monkey King"), who along with his partner Phil Carroll, successfully imported two Red and White Basenji dogs from the Congo on Sept. 4, 1941. These two dogs, a male named ‘Kindu’(AKC number A984201) and a female named ‘Kasenyi’ (AKC number A984200); along with 4 others from later importers can be found in the pedigrees of nearly every modern basenji in the United States. 1941 would also mark the first year that first Basenjis were successfully bred and raised in the United States.
The ‘unofficial’ debut of the Basenji in the United States actually occurred 4 months earlier on On April 5, 1941, when a small female, later named ‘Congo’ managed to successfully stowaway aboard the West African Line freighter,West Lashaway. The very emaciated dog was discovered among the ship’s cargo of Coco-Beans when it docked 21 days after its departure from Free-town, Sierra Leone in Boston, Massachusetts. An excerpt from the April 9th, 1941 article in the Boston Post titled "Barkless Dog Ship's Stowaway":
"Stowaway found on Ship
On April 5, 1941, the American-West African Line freighter West Lashaway docked in Boston after arriving from Freetown, Sierra Leone with a load of cocoa beans. When the hold was opened more than cocoa beans where found down below. A female Basenji was discovered half-starved after surviving twenty-one days in the hold. According to the ship's crew, while they were loading cocoa beans in Monrovia, Liberia two barkless dogs played about the ship. The crew thought all the animals had been chased down the loading runways. Apparently, she had stowed away in the hold of the ship and when the hatches were battened down could not escape. During the rest of the journey the hatches were not removed. She was able to get water by licking condensation and some food by nibbling on cocoa beans."
World War II caused a temporary interruption to the breed's development in both England and the U.S. Veronica Tudor-Williams helped jump start Basenji breeding again in Great Britain. In the 1950s she imported more of the dogs from Africa "to freshen up the European stock" after encountering them on an expedition in South Sudan. She wrote about her experiences in her book Fula--Basenji from the Jungle. Veronica Tudor-Williams also wrote Basenjis, the Barkless Dog, first published in 1946 and updated in new editions in 1954, 1966, and 1974. These books form the major source material for the early history of Basenjis outside of Africa.
Basenjis were officially recognized by the American Kennel Club(AKC) in 1944; the Basenji Club of America (BCOA) was established in the mid-1940s. In 1987 and 1988, Jon Curby, an American, organized trips to Africa. His purpose was to acquire more Basenjis to increase the available gene pool for breeders, in order to improve the overall health of the breed. His travel groups returned with brindle, reds, and tri-color dogs. Prior to this time the brindle colored Basenji had not been bred outside of Africa. In 1990, the AKC stud book was reopened to allow 14 of these new imports at the request of the Basenji Club of America. The stud book was reopened once again on January 1, 2009 to allow the entry of selected imported dogs; it is slated to close December 31, 2013. In 2010, another expedition to Africa was orchestrated to in 2010 to collect breeding stock in the villages of the Basankusu area of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The breed has come a long way since the 1940’s and currently ranks 89th in popularity out of 167 breeds according to the AKC’s “2010 Most Popular Dogs” list.
Basenjis are small but strong, elegant, poised, smoothly muscular, and quite agile. Ideal sizes for Basenjis are seventeen inches in height (ground to top of shoulders) for a male and sixteen inches in height for a female. Males should weigh about twenty-four pounds, females about twenty-two pounds. The length of the Basenji, measured from the front chest to the point of the rear, should correspond to the dog's height in inches.
The Basenjis' trademark wrinkled foreheads can give them a pensive or quizzical look. Their small, erect ears are slightly hooded and set forward on the top of their heads. They have flat, chiseled skulls of medium width and their muzzles are shorter than their skulls. Their eyes range in hue from dark hazel to dark brown and are almond-shaped, slanted, and dark rimmed. The nose is usually black (which is preferred). Basenjis sport distinctive tails that curl tight and high over their backs, resting on one side. Their legs are long and slender and their toes highly arched.
The coat of the Basenji is short, smooth, and silky. All have white feet, chest, and tail tip. They may also have white legs, blaze, and collar. The majority of the Basenji's coat is colored predominantly in either chestnut red, black, black and chestnut red (tricolor), or brindle (black stripes on red undercoat).
Intelligent, independent, active, and resourceful, the Basenji requires a lot of exercise and stimulation. Without enough physical, intellectual, and social activity the Basenji can become bored or lonely and destructive. Basenjis are pack animals, loyal to one person or one family, and may not warm up to house guests or dogs outside the family. And though they usually get along with other pets in their own pack or family, they do have a natural instinct to chase small animals. Even though Basenjis are generally gentle with children, they need to be socialized early with both children and adults, as well as other dogs.
While Basenjis, because of their flat larynx, do not bark, don't make the mistake of thinking they are mute. Basenjis are best known for the yodel-like sound, commonly called a "barroo", they make when excited or happy, but they also unleash a loud keening cry when lonely. When pleased, some Basenjis make a crowing noise. Also noted in their repertoire of noises are a bird-like pack call and a wild animal snarl.
Basenjis are proud and aloof, which may be off-putting to some people. They are also less affectionate than most dogs and more independent. Basenjis are also stubborn (the flip side of independence!) and will take over as the pack leader if the owner does not take charge. Basenjis require early, consistent, and firm (but never harsh) training. That said, there will be times when your Basenji understands your instructions but chooses to ignore you.
Basenjis should not be outdoors off leash because their natural hunting instinct can take over and, disregarding all danger (for instance cars), they may take off after a squirrel or other small creature. Also, because of their intelligence, resourcefulness, and agility they are mischievous, prone to "get into" things, and adept at escaping enclosures that aren't well secured. For the protection of your pet, crate him or her when you leave and periodically inspect enclosed outdoor spaces to make sure they don't offer any unintended escape routes. Keep your house puppy-proofed until your Basenji is at least two years old.
Basenjis are small enough to pick up, but not fragile creatures. Note that they prefer warm rather than cold environments and do not like to get wet. Take care of your Basenji and you may enjoy him or her for twelve to fourteen years.
When it comes to grooming, Basenjis are low-maintenance. Fastidious dogs, they frequently clean themselves in a cat-like manner; they are also virtually odorless and therefore don't require regular bathing. (Which is fortunate for Basenjis, since they don't like water!). Their low-shedding coats are also easy to care for, requiring a light brushing with a grooming mitt or glove every other week. Trim their toe nails every week or two to prevent them breaking or catching, which could cause discomfort or injury to your pet. Basenjis need to have their teeth checked and to have their anal sacs emptied periodically to prevent infection or impaction, as is the case with any dog breed.
The most well-known health concern for Basenjis is Fanconi Syndrome, a kidney disease affecting the body's ability to process sugars and proteins. The kidneys spill electrolytes and nutrients into urine instead of reabsorbing them. Fanconi Syndrome is usually diagnosed in dogs between the ages of four and seven. Thanks to Dr. Steve Gonto of Savannah, Georgia, Professor of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine (human), who developed and authored the "Fanconi Management Protocol for Veterinarians," the life expectancy for dogs with Fanconi Syndrome has increased and their quality of life has improved. In fact according to Dr. Gonto, the outlook is exceptionally good with early detection and treatment, even though the condition cannot be cured, it can only be controlled.
Glucose test stripping at one-month intervals is highly recommended for Basenjis of any age to test for Fanconi Syndrome. A dog's urine can be checked with glucose test strips from any drugstore. This form of testing can detect the disease long before overt symptoms appear such as: frequent urination, excessive water-drinking, and loss of weight. These symptoms are easily mistaken for diabetes, but the blood glucose level will be low rather than high if the dog has Fanconi Syndrome. If the glucose reading is low, a venous blood gas analysis is needed to confirm the diagnosis and to apprise your veterinarian of the current stage of the disease. The earlier Fanconi Syndrome is detected, the easier the treatment and less permanent the damage.
No one can guarantee that your Basenji puppy won't develop Fanconi Syndrome since some dogs develop it without any history of it in their lineage. However, since it has a hereditary component you can reduce the odds that the puppy you purchase will develop the disease. Reputable breeders should tell you whether the disease is in the pup's lineage. A DNA Linkage Test was developed in 2007 by Dr. Gary Johnson of the University of Missouri. This test is not 100% accurate, but its accuracy rate is fairly high. It is available now and breeders are encouraged to test dogs before breeding. Prospective owners should request proof of the test on the parents of any puppy they are considering purchasing.
Another health concern is IPEB, formerly called IPSID, a systemic intestinal disease. This autoimmune intestinal disease causes intermittent anorexia, chronic diarrhea, and debilitation. It is a fatal condition that affects multiple organ systems including the skin, liver, endocrine system, immune system, and gastrointestinal tract. The disease is inherited, but with proper treatment, symptoms in the Basenji suffering from IPEB can be alleviated and the dog's lifespan can be extended.
Progressive Retinal Atrophy, or PRA, is a major concern for Basenjis. It causes slow damage to the retina leading to blindness. Early in the disease, affected dogs are night-blind, lacking the ability to adjust their vision to dim light. Eventually their daytime vision also fails. As the retinal disease progresses, the pupils of the dog's eyes become increasingly dilated, causing a noticeable shine in their eyes. The eye lenses may become cloudy, or opaque, resulting in a cataract. Diagnosis of PRA is made by ophthalmoscopic examination. Like Fanconi Syndrome, there is a hereditary factor. Knowing if PRA is in the dog's lineage helps decrease the chances of it occurring in your dog, but there are no guarantees.
Other health issues for Basenjis include: