Basenji

The Basenji, Africa’s ‘Barkless Dog,’ is a compact, sweet-faced hunter of intelligence and poise. They are unique and beguiling pets, best for owners who can meet their exercise needs and the challenge of training this catlike canine.
Basenjis are small, graceful hounds standing 16 or 17 inches at the shoulder. They are recognizable by their glistening short coat, tightly curled tail, wrinkled forehead, and expressive almond-shaped eyes that convey a variety of subtle, humanlike emotions. Basenjis are a lovely sight at a standstill but more impressive yet at a fast trot when they exhibit the long, smooth strides of a mini-racehorse. And yes, it’s true, they don’t bark, but they make their feelings known with an odd sound described as something between a chortle and a yodel. Basenjis are fastidious and will groom themselves like cats. This has been called a ‘cult breed small in numbers, but those lucky enough to own one do so with singular devotion.

Basenjis are an energetic, clever breed with adorably furrowed brows, a strong hunting drive, and an independent personality.

The Breed Standard

A description of the ideal dog of each recognized breed, to serve as an ideal against which dogs are judged at shows, originally laid down by a parent breed club and accepted officially by national or international bodies.

Known as the “barkless” dog, the Basenji is far from silent. They’re an intelligent, clever small breed from Africa with a strong prey drive and a bottomless source of energy. Though small in stature, the Basenji is strong and determined. The Basenji is happiest when tracking a scent, which makes her at high risk for wandering off. Instead of letting this pup roam free, channel her energy into canine sports, such as tracking, agility, or lure coursing.

Basenjis can be incredibly strong-willed and mischievous, requiring a great deal of patience and humor from their pet parent. This rare breed isn’t for the novice dog owner, but if you’re up to the challenge, read on to learn more about the Basenji.

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Appearance

The Basenji is a primitive hunting dog breed in a lean yet strong and compact size. Basenjis have alert, pointed ears, almond-shaped dark hazel or dark brown eyes, and a bushy tail that tightly curls up against her back. Wrinkles on their forehead give these pups an adorable expression of concern.

Two bajensi dogs of black and chocolate white colorstanding in the woods

Their short coat is fine in texture and comes in four main colorways recognized by the American Kennel Club: chestnut red, black, tricolor (black, tan, and white), or brindle (black stripes on a chestnut base). Regardless of color, all Basenjis have a clearly delineated white chest, feet, and tail tip.

Basenjis are low-shedding and require very little maintenance. In fact, Basenjis are very cat like, spending much of their downtime grooming themselves. Due to this fastidious grooming, they typically don’t have that “dog” smell and won’t need frequent baths (lucky for you it’s common for Basenjis to hate being wet). It’s still recommended to brush your Basenji weekly and give her the occasional bath when she’s exceptionally dirty.

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Temperament

Bred to be alert for long hunts through the African wilderness, Basenjis are an extremely energetic and intelligent breed that requires plenty of daily strenuous exercise and mental stimulation. Basenjis are independent thinkers known for their willful, clever, mischievous personalities.

Basenjis are smart, they’re active, and you need to understand how they learn,” says Brian Kilcommons, founder of The Great Pets Resort, a boutique training facility in Connecticut. “Out of all the dogs, they’re the most cat-like. And there’s a saying: With dogs, you give commands, with cats you make suggestions. Well, that’s not far off from the Basenji.”

basenji wearing a decorative collar sitting on a mossy tree in a forest
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Living Needs And  Friendliness

Don’t mistake a Basenji’s independence for a desire to be alone. These hunting dogs prefer to keep their owner’s insight, and though they may not snuggle up on your lap, they’ll let you know when they want some attention. This high-energy breed needs plenty of exercise and is best suited to a house with a well-fenced yard and owners should always keep an eye on them when outdoors. “They’re escape artists. No fence is too high that they can’t climb,” Kilcommons says.

With their small size and clean coats, a well-exercised Basenji can be a good fit for apartment life just don’t leave her alone for too long, as this breed is known to become noisy.

“‘Oh, they’re barkless!’ Well yeah, that’s true, but they yodel and they scream,” Kilcommons says. Having another pet in the house will help satisfy this pack dog’s need for company.

Basenjis have an acute sense of smell and a strong prey drive. If not properly secured, there’s no question about it: they will give chase.

woman roller blading in a park holding basenji dog on a leash

A Basenji has a go-go-go attitude. She needs daily strenuous exercise so she doesn’t become bored or she may turn to yodeling for entertainment. | Credit: imantsu / Getty

If there’s a squirrel around and your Basenji is off-leash, you can watch his tail go over the horizon,” Kilcommons says. “Have there ever been off-leash Basenjis? Yeah, but they’re the exception, not the norm. It’s doable, but it takes a lot of work.”

Instead of heading to the dog park, channel a Basenji’s energy and prey drive into canine sports, such as tracking, agility, and lure coursing. Getting involved in these sports is a great way to physically and mentally exercise a Basenji, and build a bond to boot.

You’re sure to have plenty of entertainment with a Basenji in the home. These petite pups have big personalities! Basenjis are the best fit for an owner looking to spend quality time with their dog and who has quick access to the outdoors, or with someone who’s interested in getting involved in dog sports.

It’s important to consider your lifestyle before committing to any dog. Talk to a Basenji breeder or rescue group about expectations to see if a Basenji is a good fit for you.

Affectionate With Family

Some breeds are independent and aloof, even if they’ve been raised by the same person since puppyhood; others bond closely to one person and are indifferent to everyone else, and some shower the whole family with affection. The breed isn’t the only factor that goes into affection levels; dogs who were raised inside a home with people around feel more comfortable with humans and bond more easily.

Treats can help the bonding process go more smoothly.

Kid-Friendly

Sweaty white bajensi playing with little girl

Being gentle with children, sturdy enough to handle the heavy-handed pets and hugs they can dish out, and having a blasé attitude toward running, screaming children are all traits that make a kid-friendly dog. You may be surprised by who’s on that list: Fierce-looking Boxers are considered good with children, as are American Staffordshire Terriers (which are considered Pit Bulls). Small, delicate, and potentially snappy dogs such as Chihuahuas aren’t always so family-friendly.

All dogs are individuals. Our ratings are generalizations, and they’re not a guarantee of how any breed or individual dog will behave. Dogs from any breed can be good with children based on their past experiences, training on how to get along with kids, and personality. No matter what the breed or breed type, all dogs have strong jaws, sharp pointy teeth, and may bite in stressful circumstances. Young children and dogs of any breed should always be supervised by an adult and never left alone together, period.

Dog Friendly

Bajenjis ant other dogs companions

Friendliness toward dogs and friendliness toward humans are two completely different things. Some dogs may attack or try to dominate other dogs, even if they’re love-bugs with people; others would rather play than fight, and some will turn tail and run. The breed isn’t the only factor. Dogs who lived with their littermates and mother until at least six to eight weeks of age and who spent lots of time playing with other dogs during puppyhood are more likely to have good canine social skills.

Friendly Toward Strangers

Stranger-friendly dogs will greet guests with wagging tails and nuzzles; others are shy, indifferent, or even aggressive. However, no matter what the breed, a dog who was socialized and exposed to lots of different types, ages, sizes, and shapes of people as a puppy will respond better to strangers as an adult. Remember that even friendly dogs should stay on a good, strong leash like this one in public!

Early socialization and puppy training classes are recommended for all breeds, but given the Basenji’s bountiful energy, intelligence, and penchant for mischief, they are a necessity. Basenjis are often described as ‘catlike,’ which may not seem to bode well for training them. However, they do learn readily in an encouraging and rewarding atmosphere, and with the use of positive training techniques. They also lose interest quickly, so training sessions should last no more than five or 10 minutes.

Basenjis are fastidious creatures. Their short coat is a breeze to take care of, generally requiring no more than a quick once-over with a soft bristle brush, a rubber grooming mitt or tool, or a hound glove every week. Brushing distributes skin oils throughout the coat to help keep it healthy and looking its best. Basenjis don’t have a ‘doggy smell, and they usually don’t need to be bathed unless they get into something particularly messy. As with all breeds, the Basenji’˜s nails should be trimmed regularly, because overly long nails can cause the dog pain as well as problems walking and running.

Basenjis are fastidious when it comes to self-care and, much like cats, will spend hours grooming themselves, making them a very low-maintenance breed. This means fewer baths and minimum brushing just once a week should keep your Basenji’s skin healthy and coat looking sharp.

basenji dog held in male owners arms

Basenjis are pack dogs through and through. They love to be around their humans, with other dogs, or with the family cat. | Credit: onewithahalf / Adobe Stock

Regular brushing is a good time to check for things like coat sheen (dull hair can mean a lack of nutrients in her diet), nail length, and ear and dental health. Nails should be trimmed if you can hear them tapping against the floor. Basenjis’ ear canals should be pale pink with very little and fairly odorless wax. Be sure to look for any signs of movement (mites!) and foreign objects in the canal. A Basenji’s teeth should be brushed often. A thorough home health check-list is important, but remember, this doesn’t replace a visit to the vet. Always reach out to your vet with any concerns.

Basenjis are smart dogs, but that doesn’t mean training is simple. This clever breed requires patience, creativity, and loads of positive reinforcement when it comes to training.

“They’re very sensitive,” Kilcommons says. “If you’re just going to correct them for what you don’t like, you’re probably going to have a problem—they don’t tolerate a heavy hand,” Kilcommons recommends giving Basenjis plenty of treats during training and making the experience as fun as possible.

Left: With their small size (Basenjis only stand about 17 inches tall), these pups make good apartment dogs. Just make sure she has daily opportunities to stretch her legs outside! | CREDIT: JEZANDIA PHOTOGRAPHY / GETTY
Right: Basenjis are ancient hunting dogs from central Africa. But today they’re more likely found running around the backyard and snoozing on the couch. | CREDIT: CHRISTINA BERGER / EYEEM / GETTY

Instead of a traditional yip or yelp, the Basenji makes a sort of yodeling noise. (Adorable or annoying? We’ll let you be the judge.) Though it may not ward off intruders—they’re much too small to be intimidating—your Basenji will probably sound the alarm when they see anything they think is suspicious, whether that be the delivery person or a passing squirrel.

Basenjis are very playful and, despite being independent, prefer you to be within sight at all times. If not properly exercised or if left alone for too long, Basenjis tend to become noisy and show undesirable behaviors. It takes a sense of humor to live with a Basenji—owners are known to jokingly brag about all the items their Basenjis have destroyed. The plus side is these pups will force you to keep a home free of clutter.

As with any breed, it’s important to properly socialize your Basenji as a puppy. A well-adjusted Basenji can be good with cats, other dogs, and older children. It’s important to teach children how to properly interact with dogs and always supervise them when playing with any animal.

The Basenji is considered an overall healthy breed with a lifespan of 13–14 years. Like all breeds, the Basenji is prone to certain diseases. The Basenji Club of America, the official breed club, requires registered breeders to test for hip dysplasia, autoimmune thyroiditis, Fanconi syndrome, progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), and complete an annual thorough eye exam (owners should continue this until age 6, then every two years thereafter).

Additional Basenji health issues to be aware of—and talk to your breeder or rescue league about—are:

Of course, not all Basenjis will encounter serious health issues, but it’s important to be aware of these common concerns when considering this breed. It’s also important to purchase all dogs from reputable breeders who will introduce you to the dog’s parents and siblings. If adopting, ask the rescue for any available health history.

Basenji are generally healthy dogs, and responsible breeders screen for health disorders such as hypothyroidism, a type of inflammatory bowel disease called IPSID and canine hip dysplasia. Gene tests are available to identify carriers of Fanconi syndrome, a kidney disorder, as well as progressive retinal atrophy, or PRA; such tests allow breeders to plan breedings that will not produce those diseases. As with all breeds, a Basenji’s ears should be checked regularly, and the teeth should be brushed often.

Recommended Health Tests From the National Breed Club:
  • Hip Evaluation
  • Ophthalmologist Evaluation
  • PRA-BJ1 DNA Test
  • Fanconi Syndrome DNA Test
  • Thyroid Evaluation

Read the Official Breed Club Health Club Statement

History

Basenjis are a primitive hunting breed from central Africa, where they were prized for their silent nature, explosive speed, keen eyesight, and unmatched sense of smell. It’s believed these dogs were brought up the Nile as presents to the pharaohs of ancient Egypt and are depicted in Babylonian and Mesopotamian art, according to the BCA, though there’s debate on whether the depictions are actually of Basenjis as we know them today or of an ancestral breed. Also known as the Congo Terrier (or Congo Dog), Basenjis were used by tribesmen to drive small prey from the bush and to alert hunters of larger, dangerous predators.

ancient wall painting depicting basenji dog Anubis

Basenjis are thought to be the inspiration for the image of Anubis, the Egyptian god of mummification and the afterlife.| Credit: Universal History Archive / Getty

The first attempt to export the Basenji breed to England in the late 1800s ended in tragedy, with the breeding pair dying soon after arrival. A second attempt in the 1920s ended in a similar tragedy, according to the BCA. A dog named Bois (who became the first Basenji registered by the AKC in 1944) was brought to America and successfully bred with a female imported from the Congo.

More Basenjis were imported from Africa in the 1980s, which also introduced brindle coloring. Though still considered rare, the breed became more popular after a Basenji starred in the 1954 film Good-bye, My Lady.

Basenjis are still used as hunting dogs in the Congo today. In the U.S., they’re typically kept as family pets and are often seen competing in lure coursing or as show dogs.

Basenjis are contenders for the title of oldest AKC breed. Paleontologists tell us that the first domesticated dogs looked a lot like Basenjis. They were already well established when they were brought up the Nile from interior Africa as gifts for the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Basenjis are depicted in ancient Egyptian artifacts, and traces of the breed can also be seen in ancient Babylonian and Mesopotamian art.

These once-mighty civilizations collapsed millennia ago, but the Basenji endured as a semi-wild dog living at the headwaters of both the Nile and Congo rivers. African peoples prized Basenjis as versatile hunters with keen eyesight, explosive speed, and a highly developed sense of smell. Basenjis are known as expert vertical leapers, a skill developed to scout prey in African grasslands. (An African breed name translates as “the jumping-up-and-down dog.”) Father Jerome Merolla, a 17th-century Catholic missionary to the Congo, left behind this written description of the Basenjis he saw living a feral state: “These dogs, notwithstanding their wildness, do little or no damage to the inhabitants. They are red-haired, have small slender bodies and their tails turned upon their backs.”

Isolated in remote areas of the African continent for thousands of years, the unique Basenji went unaltered by Western fads and fancies. The breed that so impressed the pharaohs was pretty much the same as the breed that was introduced to the West in the late 1800s.

Size

Dogs come in all sizes, from the world’s smallest pooch, the Chihuahua, to the towering Great Dane, how much space a dog takes up is a key factor in deciding if they’re compatible with you and your living space. Large dog breeds might seem overpowering and intimidating, but some of them are incredibly sweet! Take a look and find the right-sized dog for you!

Males stand 17 inches at the shoulder and weigh about 24 pounds, females 16 inches and 22 pounds.

Many larger dogs are prone to joint issues.

Personality

The Basenji is a hound. That means he’s intelligent and independent, but also affectionate and alert. He’s a sighthound, which means that motion catches his eye, and he’ll chase whatever he sees that moves — cats, squirrels, rabbits. He’s not the kind of dog who will obey commands instantly. He has to think about them and decide if he really wants to do what you’ve asked.

Patience and a sense of humor are essential to living with a Basenji. He will chew up or eat whatever’s left in his reach, and he’s quite capable of putting together a plan to achieve whatever it is he wants, whether that’s to get up on the kitchen counter or break into the pantry where the dog biscuits are stored. He can be aloof with strangers, and he shouldn’t be trusted around cats or other small animals unless he’s been raised with them and you’re sure he recognizes them as family members. That recognition won’t apply to cats or small animals he sees outdoors, however. They’re fair game.

Basenjis need early socialization and training. Like any dog, they can become timid if they are not properly socialized exposed to many different people, sights, sounds, and experiences when they’re young. Early socialization helps ensure that your Basenji puppy grows up to be a well-rounded dog. Enrolling your young Basenji in a puppy kindergarten class is a great start. Inviting visitors over regularly, and taking your Basenji to busy parks, stores that allow dogs, and on leisurely strolls to meet neighbors will also help him polish his social skills.

Train him with kindness and consistency, using positive reinforcements that include food rewards and praise. The Basenji who’s treated harshly will simply become more stubborn and less willing to do your bidding. Your best bet is to keep training interesting. Basenjis will develop selective hearing if there’s something more exciting to pay attention to.

Feeding

Recommended daily amount: 3/4 to 1 cup of high-quality dry food a day, divided into two meals.

NOTE: How much your adult dog eats depends on its size, age, build, metabolism, and activity level. Dogs are individuals, just like people, and they don’t all need the same amount of food. It almost goes without saying that a highly active dog will need more than a couch potato dog. The quality of dog food you buy also makes a difference — the better the dog food, the further it will go toward nourishing your dog, and the less of it you’ll need to shake into your dog’s bowl.

With his lightly built body, often likened to that of a deer, the Basenji is ill-suited to carry excess weight. In other words, don’t let him get fat. Keep your Basenji’s physique sleek by measuring his food and feeding him twice a day rather than leaving food out all the time. Giving him plenty of daily exercise should do the rest. If you’re unsure whether he’s overweight, give him the hands-on test. Place your hands on his back, thumbs along the spine and the fingers spread downward. You should be able to feel but not see his ribs. If you can’t feel the ribs, he needs a little less food and a lot more exercise.

For more on feeding your Basenji, see our guidelines for buying the right food, feeding your puppy, and feeding your adult dog.

Fun Facts

  • Basenjis are thought to be the inspiration for the image of Anubis, the Egyptian god of mummification and the afterlife.
  • Basenjis are almost cat-like in the way they self-groom, which keeps their short-haired coat nearly odorless and clean.
  • Rather than a typical yip, Basenjis make yodeling noises.
  • In ancient times, Basenjis were brought up the Nile from central Africa as gifts for the Egyptian pharaohs.
  • Basenjis were used by central African tribesmen as prized hunting dogs.

National Breed Club & Rescue Group

Want to connect with other people who love the same breed as much as you do? We have plenty of opportunities to get involved in your local community thanks to AKC Breed Clubs located in every state and more than 450 AKC Rescue Network groups across the country. Formed in 1942, the Basenji Club of America, Inc. is the official AKC Parent Club for the Basenji.

Basenjis are often purchased without any clear understanding of what goes into owning one. There are many Basenjis in need of adoption and or fostering. There are a number of rescues that we have not listed. If you don’t see a rescue listed for your area, contact the national breed club or a local breed club and they can point you toward a Basenji rescue.

6 Ancient Dog Breeds That Originated in Egypt(Opens in a new browser tab)

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