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Gundogs are smart, they quickly learn what it is you want them to do: Hounds are smarter, they quickly learn how to get you to do whatever it is they want you to do .....
One of the oldest breeds in the world, Basenji like dogs are depicted on the tombs of ancient Egyptian Pharoahs dating from 2,700 B.C. Their history from that time to the end of the 19th Century remains a mystery.
Victorian explorers of darkest Africa often mentioned an unusual breed of barkless dog, the German Dr. Schweinfurth wrote in 1860 a great deal about the dogs of various tribes, descriptions reminiscent of the dog we know today as the Basenji.
There is some debate as to how this 'Egyptian' dog found its way to the rainforests of Central Africa (modern day Zaire, formerly known as the Belgian Congo and Southern Sudan in the main) where it remained far from civilisation with its native owners, undiscovered for thousands of years. It is presumed that with the decline of the Pharoahs the Basenji also fell into obscurity, but remained treasured and preserved by various tribes. Basenjis were prized for their hunting prowess and were sometimes valued as highly as a wife - twelve hairpins and a wife being considered fair exchange!
Having read much, it is my opinion that the Basenji probably originated in the centre of Africa, where mankind itself rose from the earth. The 'civilised' ancient Egyptians organised expeditions north, south, east and west and brought back not only artefacts but animals from various countries, including many large mammals indigenous to central and southern Africa. When they came upon these elegant little dogs in the central rainforests, it is not beyond speculation that they too would have been captivated and returned to Egypt with these little hunting dogs as part of their cargo. It is probably less likely that these dogs travelled in the opposite direction from Egypt to the rainforest, but perhaps the Egyptians did take their dogs with them on their various expeditions and perhaps some were lost, or left behind as trade items? We will never know.
Literature has seen Basenjis recorded under various names - often tribal variations, "Congo Terrier", "Bongo", "Nyam-Nyam" (pronounced Yum-Yum) and "Zande" dogs amongst others. Also known as "up and down dogs" because of their agile nature and habit of springing and jumping, particularly in order to see above the tall 'Elephant grass'. The pygmies of the Ituri rainforests used their dogs to drive game such as small antelope into nets and wooden bells were hung from the dogs' necks (in the absence of a bark) to alert the huntsmen as to where they were. These dogs were known as "little bush things" or "Basenchi" in their own dialect, from where the modern name originates.
The first Basenjis were brought from Africa in 1895 by James Garrow and exhibited to the Western world at Crufts Dog Show by their new owner Mr W.R. Temple. Unfortunately, these 'native' dogs died of a viral illness soon after, but not before they had caused a stir. In 1908 a pair of Basenji like dogs were exhibited in Paris. These found their way eventually to Berlin Zoo and were exhibited as 'African Bush Dogs', where later a very typical Basenji daughter was born.
In 1923 Lady Helen Nutting returned from her home in Khartoum with six of these dogs (from the Bahr-el-Ghazal region of Sudan), but tragically they perished during quarantine following experimental distemper innoculations.
Ten years later Mrs Olivia Burn fell in love with this very definite breed in Central Africa and caused a sensation when she exhibited Basenjis at Crufts in 1937. Her imports were the foundation of the lovely breed we have today and her enthusiasm was matched by probably one of the best known breeders in the world - Miss Veronica Tudor Williams. Veronica's 'of the Congo' kennel and Olivia's 'of Blean' stock are behind every modern day Basenji and their contribution is invaluable.
Mrs Tudor Williams wrote several books on the breed and described the Basenji as one quarter dog, cat, monkey and human - a wonderful description which so aptly describes this absolute gem of a dog. Of course the most remarkable thing about a Basenji is the absence of a bark, although they are by no means mute with a growl like a leopard, the howl of a wolf and their most attractive sound known as a yodel. The yodel is similar to a cockrel's first attempt at crowing and is usually aimed at those they love, quite distinctive and most endearing. How can you stay cross with an impish Basenji yodelling at you for all it's worth! Click here for a link to the Basenji Club of America web site, where you can hear what a Basenji yodel sounds like!
Basenjis are clean and odourless, their sleek and close fitting coat is their crowning glory. There are four distinct colours - bright orangey red, black tan and white most usually with delightful 'melon pips' above the eyes, pure black and white, and brindle - black 'tiger' stripes on a clear red background. Fine and silky the coat feels like satin, but also like a hedgehog when rubbed the wrong way! The Basenji keeps himself clean by washing himself like a cat, using his paws like hands to wash his face and ears. Paws are used like hands in other ways too, to gesture and placate. Of noble birth, the Basenji knows the best chair in the house is his by rights and who can resist that wrinkly forehead and that inscrutable expression through dark almond shaped eyes as they aristocratically look down on you from there?
The Basenji looks like a thoroughbred racehorse, particularly when trotting full out with a long swinging springy stride. Alert and aloof, you must always be one step ahead of a Basenji - fleet of foot they must be one of the quickest dogs from a standing start and rate among the top few speed merchants in spite of their compact size. Finely but strongly boned, built for the hunt. Their tightly curled tail lying closely to the side of the hip in either a double or single curl, completes the picture. And there you have it - a most ancient and unique breed, highly intelligent and not the easiest of breeds to obedience train. The Basenji is a challenge, a totally different dog - elegant but sturdy, friendly and always ready for a game.
Owning a Basenji requires an acceptance of what they are, where they came from and how they are different, but once you have owned a Basenji, an ordinary dog just will not do. Once a Basenji, always a Basenji.
© Kim Ellis. Not to be reproduced without the authors permission.
Do you still think a Basenji is the right breed for you?
Read this article to find out - Is a Basenji right for you?
On this page you will also find links to the websites of the three UK Basenji Clubs.
You can find out if there are any adult Basenjis currently available in UK Breed Rescue on the Basenji Breed Council website or contact the UK Breed Clubs to be put in touch with breeders near you. We strongly recommend that you visit some adult Basenjis before making up your mind and chat at length about the pros and cons of Basenji ownership. Do as much homework as you can and read everything before committing to a bundle of devilment! There is lots of useful information on the internet - see below.
Some more Basenji Links: