This is one of the most popular pages on our site. This page contains two commentaries about the Basenji. Another is our page titled “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”, more reality stories from individual Basenji owners.
The first commentary is from Chandler Lyons of Kalamazoo, Michigan and his experiences in the Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa where he met the love of his life, an African Basenji named Le Boss. Through perseverance and hard work Chandler was able to get Le Boss to America.
Next, Exploration Geologist Eric Higgins of Tulsa, Oklahoma shares his stories of living with native Basenjis in a small rural village in eastern Republic of Congo, Africa. He tells us what Basenjis are like in their native habitat.
Finally, the late Jenny Taylor, explores the question often burning in everyone's mind, Can I adopt a calm and obedient Basenji?
I never thought that the first dog I would have on my own would be an African Basenji that I bought for four dollars.
I joined the Peace Corps right after graduating college, living in Benin, West Africa. During my first three months there, I lived with a host family while I attended training. They had a dog named Tigre, who was constantly covered in ticks and tied up to a chain during the day. Yet he was the sweetest dog, always looking to be pet and being so patient with my three young host siblings. I decided that I had to get a dog when I moved to village.
After a mere two hours of moving into my tiny concrete house in my village of a thousand, two kids brought over a black puppy because they had heard that I wanted to buy a dog. The puppy was so sweet, but its stomach was extremely bloated and she seemed so lethargic. “Are there any other puppies?” I asked. They sighed, but later brought back a reddish blonde dog that immediately started playing with my neighbor’s puppy. He was definitely too young to be weaned from his mom—probably 4 or 5 weeks old. At that point, I didn’t even know where to buy food for myself, so I fed him some pretzel rods. That night, he pawed continually at my mosquito net and cried incessantly. I barely slept that night and wondered just how difficult of a dog he was going to be.
Yet somehow, he managed to potty train himself, only having two accidents in my house his entire life. I let him roam the village—he had more of a social life than I did and could definitely navigate the village better. If I biked somewhere, he went with me. He chased the motorcycles I rode on, running as fast as he could and giving up after several kilometers. Somehow, he always found his way back home.
Getting him neutered was awful, as there was no anesthesia for animals there—just a razor blade and some antiseptic. It only cost a dollar, and later that night he was out roaming the village like a champ. The kids in my village named him Le Boss, which ended up being a perfect name for him. He was the dominant male in village—stealing bones from puppies and chasing goats and chickens. I knew this dog was a keeper, and that I had to find a way to bring him back to America.
Figuring out how to bring Le Boss back was one of the most stressful weeks of my life. I went to the cargo services for Brussels Air probably five times. That particular week, it happened to be 90 degrees in America—too hot to fly a dog. I ended up having to choose to fly him back cargo because I unexpectedly had to leave the Peace Corps early due to health reasons, and they were going to buy my plane ticket only a day or two in advance.
Fortunately, one day that week the weather cooled to 75 degrees on the east coast and Le Boss could fly from Cotonou, Benin to Brussels, Belgium to JFK, and then from JFK to Chicago, where my parents were picking him up. Le Boss would be travelling two days!
I emailed all of the airports before, and tracked his flights online. My parents were called and told that he would be landing early in Chicago, so they got on the road from Michigan. They arrived at American Airlines’ cargo, and were told that they had no record of a dog flying in and they weren’t sure if he had actually left Benin. They frantically called the cargo representative in Cotonou, Benin, and JFK airport to track Le Boss. Finally, we figured out that he had been lost at JFK; he had missed his flight from Cotonou, and was scheduled to fly out from JFK early the next day, which made for four days in airports for Le Boss. Miraculously, he made it to Chicago, and then endured the four-hour car ride home to Michigan.
It wasn’t an easy adjustment for Le Boss at first in his new American life. He growled at every mirror and reflective surface because he had never seen his reflection before. He was very aggressive with other dogs, but somehow got along extremely well with my parents’ Yorkie. He hated walking on grass, and only peed in piles of leaves or dirt. Sprinklers and doorbells startled him. However, he loved sleeping in my bed under the covers, and he started chasing squirrels in my parents’ backyard. He started yodeling more frequently and playing with toys.
Now we live in an apartment, and he waits patiently for me to come home from work. He’s never chewed anything up, and is always eager to go for his daily walk. He loves running through the snow, but detests swimming. Though bringing him home was difficult, I’m not sure I’ll ever have a better dog than him.
I happened to visit your website—I was trying to tell a friend at work about the Basenjis—and did a little searching on the Internet. Having lived for a year in a small village in rural eastern Zaire (now Republic of Congo again) in central Africa, in the midst of Basenjis, I would like to interject some thoughts concerning the descriptions of the breed and its habits on your site and elsewhere.
The description of Basenjis as African “wild dogs” is totally incorrect. There are wild dogs in Africa, but they are not similar in the least to Basenjis. Basenjis are domestic animals. Although not cared for in the manner we expect for pets here (people there don't often live that well), they do live with families and are fed and housed by them in their homes. They are prized as hunting dogs and protective companions. They also keep the yard free of rats, snakes, etc. The Basongye people that I lived with, and other Congolese people, praised them for their bravery and intelligence. They hand craft various sorts of soft bells for them to wear to keep track of their whereabouts. They feed them from their own meals, although they must supplement their diet with mice and other critters that frequent the property.
Basenjis in the small village I lived in were socialized in the manner of domestic dogs elsewhere. Like all domestic animals there, they are allowed to roam freely, but also know where home is and spend much of their time there, including in the hut/house. They sleep at home. They are bonded and loyal to particular individuals or families of people—not just general village dogs.
I did observe that Basenjis are highly intelligent, curious, and physically coordinated dogs. The people in my village were well aware of their clever and somewhat mischievous nature, but that happens to be a quality that is more tolerated and actually somewhat prized there, among both people and animals. I never once saw or heard of a person bitten or otherwise terrorized by a Basenji, although it was known to happen in the context of a burglary or assault against their owner. I never observed a Basenji damage its owner's property, as seems to be a problem for owners here.
I am suspicious that a fair amount of the problems associated with Basenjis in the U.S. have to do with the manner in which they are being raised, handled and trained. They would certainly suffer in behavior by being “spoiled” (let on the furniture, fed from the table, too much silly attention), being trained too little and too lightly and, especially, by not having enough challenging work and physical activity. These are by nature, highly active, physically tough hunting dogs that need the same sort of mentally and physically demanding work and play that other sporting dogs need. Like other active, sporting breeds, they are bound to cause trouble if they are expected to be couch potatoes, lap dogs, yard dogs, etc. They should live in a home, but get lots of serious brain and muscle work outdoors to match their abilities.
Based on my experience around Basenjis in their native home, and by the sound of the comments I read from owners on your website and other American owners that I've met, I suspect that what the Basenji breed in this country needs is recognition of their fundamental character and the chance to excel as field and working dogs. Attention to this character should be paid by breeders, trainers and owners.
Please consider posting my comments on your site. I hope that they might inspire some thought and discussion.Eric Higgins
By Jenny Taylor
Calm and obedient are not qualities normally associated with Basenjis. A calm manner may be seen in an adult Basenji, but obedience is rarely demonstrated. An indigenous dog of Africa, Basenjis inherently lack the domestic qualities we see in other breeds. They are not motivated to serve man. They think independently and need a reason to pay attention to a human command.
You might ask: If these dogs are so hard to handle and so uncontrollable why do people want them?
Basenji owners make a wide range of comments about their behavior and personality. One person will say, “They are very energetic but not especially destructive,” while another will wail, “He ate his way out of the bathroom!”
While the adoption postings certainly make them sound sweet and loving enough, Basenjis can range from highly destructive and aggressive to perfect angels—like every breed. The closest truth is that Basenjis need positive training. If they are in a household where a heavy hand is used for training, they are more likely be aggressive and mean.
Basenjis are curious, active and self-directed by nature. If they are bored or anxious, they can get into a lot of trouble emptying trash cans, chewing furniture, eating shoes and clothing, exploring the cat box, and destroying a wide variety of things that would absolutely amaze you! Never underestimate the wily nature of a Basenji. These activities give them great pleasure and using force or severe discipline will not change their predisposition to do them. The best strategy is to remove the temptations. Put shoes away and waste baskets out of reach. Close doors and crate or kennel them if they will be unsupervised for any long period of time—at least until they can be trusted.
Basenjis are not easily trainable. They respond well to clicker training and lots of positive reinforcement (hot dog bits don't hurt either) but, generally, they are self-determined and will comply only when they want to. When you get to know your Basenji you can watch him “thinking about” whether to do what you have asked or not. This is not a trait everybody can live with.
In addition, the Basenji is a sighthound with a high prey-drive. (Don't even think about training thousands of years of nature out of them!) They like to hunt anything and everything that moves and will tear after all things that interest them, with complete reckless abandon. Sadly, this is the behavior that gets them killed most often—they will run into the path of cars without being cognizant of what they are doing. Their natural instinct also makes them bolt through open doors. No amount of calling and commanding will bring them back until they have satisfied their curiosity. These are traits shared by all sighthounds, including the Greyhound, Whippet, Borzoi, Saluki and Afghan hounds.
In 30 years of living with Basenjis I have had some that are more compliant than others. Some have been more destructive than others and some more aloof than others. I've not had one that could pass by a tissue without ripping it up. Nor have I had one that would come every time I called—although some were more obedient than others.
So, getting back to the question, “If these dogs are so hard to handle and so uncontrollable why do people want them?” For me it is because when they love you, you know it is completely their idea. There is no blind following or genetic predisposition to respect humans. You have earned their respect and affection. They challenge me and I find myself asking, “How can I outwit this dog?”—and enjoying it!
On a more surface level, they are clean and odor-free and they don't bark. They are a wonderfully portable size but still big enough for a good cuddle. Finally, they are simply magnificent to look at and watch.
The descriptions given with our BRAT listings are accurate. We represent the dogs truthfully and will not accept a dog for re-homing if its temperament is determined to be unsavory. When a Basenji has reportedly bitten, we take a serious look at its temperament. Sometimes, though not always, we discover that a Basenji's bad temperament is due to inappropriate handling.
Basenjis are not for everyone. If blind obedience is a desired quality in a dog, a Basenji should never be considered. But if a wonderful companion is wanted—and a relationship where on-going negotiations are the norm—and you have time to give your Basenji lots of loving attention, then this might be the dog for you.
Jennie Taylor (July 22, 1950-September 16, 2005)
Brevard, North Carolina