Linda Daves Siekert might be a certified veterinary technician and the treasurer of the Basenji Club of America, but those are only sidelines because she’s been “physically owned” by Basenjis since 1994.
Despite that admission, Linda says it was the breed’s lack of a traditional bark that set her on the path to a life devoted to the breed. The first dog she owned as an adult, a “poorly bred” Doberman Pinscher with a leg injury that limited its activity opportunities, brought an animal control officer to Linda’s door to discuss the bored dog’s barking.
“My research led me to the Basenji,” Linda says. “They had the clean, slick lines I liked, but not the vocal cords, or so I thought.” Today she signs her emails with the tag line: “baroos to youse,” as do many Basenji fanciers, indicative of the sound the breed makes – “baroo,” rather than “arf.”
For five years, she studied the Basenji, “buying everything I could get my hands on regarding the Basenji breed,” then “poring over these books and magazines until their bindings frayed and their pages curled. In 1993, my Doberman was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. After her untimely death, I reached out to a responsible Basenji breeder chosen the preceding year, asking for a pet quality Basenji I could do competition obedience with.”
In the spring of 1994, her first Basenji puppy, ‘Tre,’ Ch. Akuaba The Sportsman, arrived and started her on what she calls “one heck of a ride.”
That ride most recently led to the selection of ‘Drew,’ her 12-year-old Basenji, Ch. Sinbaje’s Picture Perfect, the only triple AKC champion in the breed – in conformation, lure coursing and agility – as the April 2013 Orthopedic Foundation for Animals “champion of health.” Although not an official title, it’s an important one. It means that a dog’s breeder is doing all the right things: administering the right health tests, registering the results in the right places, making the right decisions based on those tests and giving that breed the best chance of living without possible debilitating congenital conditions.
Because Linda made some poor decisions with the first two dogs she owned – the Dobe from an irresponsible breeder and a Dachshund from a pet store – doing things right as a breeder is a priority for her and her husband, Rand, who handles some of the dogs in the agility ring.
Doing all the right things, however, didn’t help Drew, from Linda’s first litter of Basenjis born in 2000, when, at age 5, he got a fungal infection. Known as “valley fever” or “desert fever,”the infection comes from spores that live in the soil of the Arizona desert where the Siekerts live. Although humans usually recover from the infection, Linda says, dogs often become sick, and can die without treatment. Drew developed an inflammation of the middle layers of both of his eyes – bilateral uveitis.
Linda explains what happened next: “Uveitis oftentimes creates the right environment for glaucoma, a painful condition where the pressure of the eye increases to intolerable levels and may result in painful blindness. Treatment of glaucoma-uveitis can unfortunately compromise the body’s ability to actively fight infections such as valley fever; we walked a fine line trying to keep him and his eyes healthy.
“Unfortunately we were unable to control the pressure in his right eye, and the pain it caused was evident in Drew’s demeanor. I had to act, so on February 15, 2005, Drew’s right eye was enucleated,” which means the eyeball was removed, but the surrounding muscles and Drew’s eyelids were preserved.
A couple of days after the surgery, Drew became cautious about opening his mouth, then started “screaming in pain,” Linda says, whenever he did. “Within weeks, his jaw locked fully, and we were unable to open it more than half an inch. Drew could have easily choked on vomit or food and died. Without access to his airway, we would have been unable to intervene. It was a scary time.”
He was started on large doses of steroids, while he underwent a CAT scan and a muscle biopsy, which found nothing to account of his behavior. “Apparently he was healthy as a horse, apart from his valley fever, with nothing to account for his mysterious condition. Sadly, by this time the steroids had taken their toll. Where there werethe once rippling muscles of a dog in his prime, one could only find flaccid skin, a dull coat and a rack of bones.”
Determined to restore the 5-year-old dog’s health, Linda “settled in” for months of physical therapy that she did herself by holding a bully stick for hours each day, “forcing him to chew on the right side of his mouth despite his resistance.” She says Drew slowly rebuilt his chewing muscles, and the pain disappeared. “To this day, no one is the wiser that at one point in his life, his jaw was locked like a steel trap.”
Linda continued to “play” with Drew at home, doing agility, obedience and rally behaviors. “This kept his mind, body and spirit nimble while not overtaxing him, in anticipation of the time he would let me know if he still wanted to play these games with only one eye.”
Onward and Finally Upward
Because visual acuity is not needed and novice rally classes are slow-paced, this event was where Drew was “able to jump back into the show fray with his previous verve showing me he did indeed want to continue to play.”
In November 2005, nine months after his surgery, Drew earned his first title, Rally Novice, as the Siekerts’ “one-eyed wonder dog.” Linda says, “We never looked back.”
It didn’t take much to make other competitions possible for Drew. “Rand always tried to stay on his sighted side when running agility,” Linda explains. “When I ran him, I usually stayed out in front of him. In obedience and rally, there was no real need to accommodate him.
At first, Drew continued to run at his jump height of 16 inches in agility. “Due to his lack of depth perception, he routinely knocked the double or triple jumps. Once we finished his Open AKC titles, we dropped him to Preferred where he would jump 4 inches lower.” He quit knocking the bars off. He also started to hesitate in front of jumps, but he was still able to earn titles.
In lure coursing, it was challenging if the lure turned sharply away from his remaining eye. “At those times, he would cast around the field trying to reorient to the lure. Sometimes it worked, and he would finish with competitive scores. Other times it didn’t, and he would finish in last place.”
Nonetheless, since recovering from the surgery and painful aftermath, Drew has earned his CDX (Companion Dog Excellent) in obedience, his field championship in lure coursing from the American Sighthound Field Association, his Rally Excellent, and a long string of agility titles, culminating in a Preferred Agility Champion (PACH) title. All with one eye, under Linda’s training, and mostly under her handling.
A Life in Dog Sports
Linda’s only performance interest when she got her first Basenji was obedience. And even that she mainly saw as a way of channeling the breed’s energy.
But as a young girl growing up, she says she“envied the psychic connection Timmy shared with his dog Lassie. I dreamed of one day having a similar connection with my own dog, never imagining the amount of work involved.Of course, everything I read about the breed suggested I seriously reconsider.”
“Once Tre arrived, and I took the plunge showing him in the breed ring and the obedience ring. It was a natural progression to also try agility, then rally when it became an official AKC sport.” Tre loved to “chase dogs at the park,” so Linda rewarded him for doing her bidding in sports she’d chosen by introducing him to lure coursing.
That’s been Linda and her Basenjis’ world ever since.
Drew recently retired because of a reoccurrence of his valley fever, which inflamed his remaining eye. “We seem to have the issue under control, but not before he lost most of his useful vision. For all intents and purposes, he is ‘legally blind.’ He can see shapes and shadows enough to maneuver around the house easily, but not much else,” Linda says.
Linda admits that Drew is a “special boy, no doubt about it. He has done everything I have asked of him and more.” However, she says, “When you work, train, trial and succeed with each individual Basenji, they all carve special niches for themselves.”
She continues to compete with 12-year-old ‘Clay,’ Sinbaje’s Perfect Contender; 9-year-old ‘Feigh,’ Eldorado’s Y’s African Sinbajé, who just earned her Master Agility Champion (MACH) title;6-year-old ‘V,’ Sinbaje’s That’s Wavy Gravy; and her up-and-coming athlete, 3-year-old ‘Ph’nx,’ Sinbaje’s Thyme2Rise.
Drew will be keeping his eye – literally – on all of them as they try to match his performance record.