Get to Know the Basenji: A Breed of Ancient Freethinkers

The catlike Basenji is among the most primitive of breeds; he's also a mischief-maker.


Ready to take a walk on the wild side? Invite a Basenji along. Among the most ancient and primitive of breeds, the Basenji has been described as catlike in his love of climbing, perching, and mischief-making. Many Basenjis are only a few generations removed from their African homeland, but they waste no time in making your home theirs.

More interesting things about Basenjis

  • Some people confuse the Basenji with the Ibizan Hound or even Pharaoh Hound, but the Basenji is about half their size. The Basenji can also be confused with the Cirneco Dell’etna, but the Cirneco only comes in solid red, whereas the Basenji always has white trim. He may also be confused with the Rat Terrier, but the Rat Terrier is smaller and has a short straight tail.
  • Basenjis are known as the “barkless dog,” although a few do bark. All of them do yodel, howl, and chortle — and “baroo.” In fact, they’re extremely vocal dogs!

  • Basenjis are one of the few breeds to have only one estrus season a year.
  • According to DNA evidence, the Basenji is one of the most primitive breeds of dogs.
  • The breed was discovered in the African Congo, where Pygmy tribes used packs of Basenjis (often wearing bells) to drive game into nets.
  • “Basenji” means “bush thing.”
  • The first Basenjis brought to England in the 1920s all died of distemper shots they received in quarantine.

  • When the dogs first came to England, they were called “Congo Terriers.” Of course, they are in no way terriers, but at the time dogs in that size range were often called terriers.
  • Most dog experts consider them to be in the group of dogs called Pariah Dogs, which are primitive village dogs, often technically ownerless, of medium size with short coats, prick ears, and curled tails.
  • They became AKC recognized in 1943. They are placed in the AKC Hound group, but throughout much of the world they are instead in the “Spitz and Primitive Dogs” group.
  • The Basenji is one of the breeds able to compete and earn titles in sighthound lure-coursing events, although not everyone agrees it’s a sighthound.

  • The Basenji was one of five breeds studied in the landmark Scott and Fuller study of inheritance of behavior in the mid 1900s. The Basenjis proved themselves to be free-thinkers: less likely to follow orders but more likely to solve puzzles than the other breeds.
  • The 1956 movie Goodbye, My Lady starred a Basenji as Lady and popularized the breed in America. It was based on a novel of the same name. The dog star lived out her life as the beloved companion of the boy who played her owner.
  • Another Basenji-centered novel is Heart of the Savannah.
  • In the late 1980s, a group of Basenji breeders traveled to Africa to collect naive Basenjis. The AKC agreed to allow the offspring of these dogs, and some from subsequent importations, to be AKC registered in order to widen the gene pool and improve the breed’s health. Because some of the new Basenjis were brindle, the standard was changed to all that color. Several years later, the top winning hound in AKC shows in the country was a brindle Basenji. The African Stock Project continues.

  • Only one Basenji has won the Hound group at the Westminster dog show, in 1972.
  • The Basenji is the 85th most popular AKC breed, down from 79th a decade ago.
  • Modern-day royal owners include King Farouk of Egypt, the Queen Mother of Rumania, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, and the King of Thailand.
  • Celebrity owners include Kelsey Grammer and Courtney Thorne-Smith.

Do you own a Basenji? Have you spent time with one? Let’s hear what you think about this fascinating breed in the comments! And if you have a favorite breed you’d like us to write about, let us know that, too!

Interested in other breed profiles? Find dozens of them here.

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