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Breeder Buzzwords – The Basenji

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.

Ch. Cambria's Ti Mungay, one of the country's Top 10 Hounds in 1962, handled by owner-breeder Robert J. Mankey. Photo Ludwig.

Ch. Cambria’s Ti Mungay, one of the country’s Top 10 Hounds in 1962, handled by owner-breeder Robert J. Mankey. Photo Ludwig. All photos courtesy of Bo Bengtson.

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.

Ch. Reveille Re-Up was No. 1 Basenji and among the Top 10 Hounds for three years in a row, 1969-1971. He is pictured winning BIS at Somerset Hills KC in 1969 under judge Fairfield P. Day, handled by Damara Bolté. The trophy presenter is Anne Rogers Clark. Photo Shafer.

Ch. Reveille Re-Up was No. 1 Basenji and among the Top 10 Hounds for three years in a row, 1969-1971. He is pictured winning BIS at Somerset Hills KC in 1969 under judge Fairfield P. Day, handled by Damara Bolté. The trophy presenter is Anne Rogers Clark. Photo Shafer.

Profuse Wrinkles
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.

Ch. Thackeray Toast Reveille winning BIS at Southern Maryland KC show in 1982, handled by Damara Bolté under judge Frank Oberstar. Photo Ashbey.

Ch. Thackeray Toast Reveille winning BIS at Southern Maryland KC show in 1982, handled by Damara Bolté under judge Frank Oberstar. Photo Ashbey.

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.

Ch. Zindika's Johnny Come Greatly, top Hound in 1997, pictured with handler Erin Roberts after winning the Basenji Club of America National Specialty in 1999 under judge Lauris Hunt of Australia. Photo Kitten Rodwell.

Ch. Zindika’s Johnny Come Greatly, top Hound in 1997, pictured with handler Erin Roberts after winning the Basenji Club of America National Specialty in 1999 under judge Lauris Hunt of Australia. Photo Kitten Rodwell.

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.

Written by

Dan Sayers started “in dogs” through a chance encounter with a Springer Spaniel in 1980. A student of dogs ever since, he’s shown Spaniels and Hounds in the conformation ring and breeds Irish Water Spaniels under the Quiet Storm prefix. A dog lover with a passion for the creative arts, Dan has worked as a freelance writer, photographer and illustrator for many years. His feature articles and columns have appeared in Dogs in Review, Dog World and the AKC Gazette, and his design work has appeared in dozens of publications in North America and abroad. An interest in all things “dog” brought Dan to Best In Show Daily, where he gets to work with the most dynamic group of fanciers every day. He lives in Merchantville, New Jersey, with his partner, Rudy Raya, Irish Water Spaniel, Kurre, and the memory of Oscar, a once-in-a-lifetime Sussex Spaniel.
Comments
  • Claudia January 1, 2013 at 7:41 PM

    Thank You Lionel! Yes, It’s true. They are Barkless! We have five Basenji’s. Three females and two males, all are Champions or of Champion bldeilonos. We have been involved with Basenji’s for a long time and have for the last ten years or so, shown all of our dogs. Several years ago when we were looking for a new male Basenji puppy to show now known as Ace we noticed a real lack of quality breeders, there are many breeders out there but in our search we realized that many were uneducated in the breed or were just down right rude, many had never even heard of common health related issues when we questioned them about the subject. we realize this is a somewhat lesser known breed but we didn’t realize how few quality breeders their were. After we found Ace we decided that we would start breeding our Basenji’s. We felt we have quality genetics to offer and are knowledgeable of the breed. After we had our first litter it didn’t take long for us to realize we were not the only ones looking for quality genetics form a trust worthy breeder.

    • Lmaris July 14, 2013 at 3:50 PM

      Bark-less, but not necessarily bark-free. My two can each manage a bark or two before switching to barroos.

  • Lynda Beam (Canine Candids by Lynda) July 14, 2013 at 1:41 PM

    Yes, they are barkless, but they definitely have a voice, and are definitely not the dog for everyone unless you can appreciate a dog that can make it to the top of the refrigerator if it feels like it!

    Most people that know me know I have shiba inus, but many do not know that I bred and showed some basenjis in the 70s and 80s as well. So I definitely know what I’m talking about here :)

    • L Jane July 15, 2013 at 5:03 AM

      Lmaris is correct. The Basenji is bark-free. Basenjis are quite capable of barking. However, that being said, they do not bark as any other dog. Instead of barking in succession, one bark right after another, they bark once or twice and it is normally used more as a warning…the sound is more like a “boof”. A study was done a few decades ago and it was discovered that the larnex of the Basenji is slightly different from other dogs. This, along with possible centuries of being discouraged from barking…for hunting reasons, may account for their tendency to not bark. Several years ago O had a conversation with a retired all breed handler friend. His theory about the Basenji was that it was the “missing link” between the canine and feline worlds. Considering the fact that the Basenji exhibits tendicies towards the feline world, I would not be surprised to hear of a study on the future that put them in their own category. But no matter what, the Basenji is a companion I choose to always have. There is no other like the Basenji. Thank you for your time.

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