Central Africa has been the home of the Basenji for thousands of years. Since the time of the pharaohs, “the dog of the forest” has hunted alongside local peoples in the Ubangi-Uele basin, eking out a living in the heart of Africa.
Research studies of canine DNA suggest the Basenji is one of the few remaining purebreds with truly ancient origins. The “barkless dog” is genetically linked to a small number of breeds originating in Asia and Africa, such as the Shiba Inu and the Saluki.
The Basenji Club of America’s website provides a comprehensive history of the breed through its Basenji Timeline, where a prehistoric cave painting depicts a hunting dog with pointed ears and a curled tail. Figures of dogs discovered throughout northern Africa suggest the breed today remains little changed from its earliest incarnation.
According to the club’s timeline, the first Basenjis arrived in Britain from the former Belgian Congo in 1923. The foundation stock for the breed in the West was imported in 1936, and the breed was exhibited for the first time at Crufts the following year. During the next few years, Basenjis arrived in the U.S. and Canada from England, and in 1941 the breed made an appearance at the famed Morris and Essex Kennel Club show.
The Basenji gained AKC recognition in 1944, when the ancient hunting dog was placed in the Hound Group. Interest in the breed grew steadily. The first specialty was held in 1950, with an entry of 23 judged by Alva Rosenberg.
For the next quarter century, support for the Basenji continued to grow among American dog fanciers. However, by the 1980s, health problems resulting from the breed’s limited gene pool had some breed enthusiasts thinking outside the box. In a 1988 AKC Gazette article titled, “A Basenji Safari,” professional handler and Basenji authority Damara Bolte wrote about the search to find quality Basenjis in Zaire to bring back to the U.S. It was hoped that these dogs would be included in the AKC Stud Book as new foundation stock.
“With this in mind, fanciers of the breed have talked about acquiring more native stock from Africa, which is logical but difficult to do,” wrote Bolte. “Then, about ten years ago, Jon Curby, past president and dedicated breeder, started looking into the idea and gathering information on pursuing the plan. Finally, in February 1987, Jon Curby and Mike Work, another Basenji breeder, returned from Zaire, enormously enthusiastic – with seven Basenji puppies.”
The following year, Bolte joined Curby and others on a return trip to bring back seven more pups, including “a lightly brindled male” and “a lovely tiger-striped brindle bitch.”
As a result of these imports, the AKC accepted the brindle color in 1990. At the parent club’s 50th anniversary specialty two years later, both winners dog and winners bitch were awarded to brindle Basenjis, and it was announced that the club had established a health research endowment fund to promote research that will benefit the breed.
The ancient Basenji – whether brindle, red, black or tricolor – continues to captivate its supporters today. In 2011, registrations for the breed placed it 93rd of the 173 AKC-recognized breeds.
The Basenji is a natural breed, without the need for cosmetic alterations to elevate its physical beauty. In fact, this Hound celebrates every line and wrinkle, and does so with panache. According to the General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard, “The wrinkled forehead must be carried proudly, and the whole demeanor should be one of poise and alertness.”
The breed’s wrinkles are typical of the Basenji. They appear on the forehead “when the ears are erect, and are fine and profuse.” In “A Review of the Basenji Standard,” prepared by the Basenji Club of America in 1991, the impact of the breed’s small ears on the wrinkles is emphasized. “It is the high set of the ears and the pricking forward when alerted that produce the fine wrinkle and quizzical expression so typical of the Basenji.”
“Wrinkles are most noticeable in puppies,” according to the standard, “and because of lack of shadowing, less noticeable in blacks, tricolors and brindles.”
The Basenji’s skin likewise limits or enhances the breed’s visible wrinkles. The standard refers to the skin of this multipurpose hunter as “very pliant.” The parent club emphasizes the importance of the skin’s texture in its review. “It should be thin and elastic, yet strong. Coarse skin cannot produce the fine profuse wrinkles characteristic of the breed…”
Wrinkles are not strictly limited to the Basenji’s flat skull. According to the Head section of the breed standard, “Side wrinkles are desirable, but should never be exaggerated into dewlap.”
The effect of the wrinkles on the breed’s expression has the power to intrigue. In the introduction to their booklet, “At Home with Basenjis,” first published in 1967, authors Marie E. Steele and Barbara A. Field suggest the breed’s “proud but worried look” is naturally meant to confuse.
A Well-Curled Tail
The Basenji proudly carries its tail, as well as its wrinkled head. “Set high on topline,” according to the standard, the tail “bends acutely forward and lies well curled over to either side.” A stern with more style would be difficult to imagine.
“In the minds of most people,” states the review, “the most important aspect of the tail is that it curls tightly, preferably twice. The curl itself is a superficial virtue, with a double curl being the improvement over the original African imports.”
However valued the curl of the tail might be to some, the correct set is of greater significance, according to the review. “More important than the degree of curl is the position where the root joins the body. The tail should sit high in its relationship to the structure of the croup, and then, as a separate feature, the tail should curl tightly to one side of the rump or the other.”
To further distinguish the Basenji’s coiled tail, its white tip seems the perfect accent to the breed’s white chest and feet.
A Tireless Trot
The Basenji has survived to the present day in a natural state. The General Appearance section of the breed standard describes a dog that is built for activity: “The balanced structure and the smooth musculature enable it to move with ease and agility.”
The standard describes the breed as “a small, short-haired hunting dog” that is “short-backed and lightly built, appearing high on the leg compared to its length.” As a result, the breed moves with a “swift, tireless trot” and with a characteristic stride that is “long, smooth, effortless.” The breed’s gait is likened to that of a racehorse.
The review indicates that when viewed from the side, “Reach should be efficient … with no excessive action, or high or hackney action…” The breed is expected to move “full-out,” with no exaggerated kick from the rear. Movement that otherwise causes fatigue is unsuitable in a Hound that is expected to hunt by sight and by scent.
For thousands of years, the Basenji has hunted the forests of central Africa, with little to support it other than its own intelligence and endurance. Small and lightly built, with an alert and independent demeanor, the breed is a living legacy of the symbiotic relationship between mankind and our oldest working partner.