How to Train a 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 tails, wrinkled foreheads,s and expressive almond-shaped eyes that convey various 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 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 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.

A breeding pair was brought to England in 1895, but they died soon thereafter. Another pair was brought to England in 1937. They were exhibited as natural curiosities, and this previously unknown breed caused such a sensation with the dog-loving British public that police were called in for crowd control. But, again, tragedy struck: The female and a litter of puppies died, leaving only the male, named Bois.

Bois was acquired by a Boston breeder who had recently obtained a female named Congo. This resulted in the first Basenjis bred in America. More dogs were slowly added to the gene pool until, finally, the Basenji was established in the United States.

Quick Facts

Temperament: independent / smart / poised

Height: 16 to 17 inches

Weight: 22 to 24 pounds

Life Expectancy: 13-16 years

Hound Group


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
  • Thyroid Evaluation
  • PRA-BJ1 DNA Test
  • Fanconi Syndrome DNA Test
  • Ophthalmologist Evaluation


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 energetic, inquisitive, and very active. They require lots of regular exercise to keep them from becoming bored. Boredom can lead to destructive behavior. Long play sessions in a well-fenced yard or securely on lead are required. A Basenji should never run loose, as the breed’s instinct to hunt is very strong, and the dog might not be able to resist the urge to run off on a chase. Giving the dog a structured outlet for those instincts and that pent-up energy can help immensely; many Basenjis enjoy, and excel at, canine sports such as lure coursing, tracking, and obedience and agility competitions.

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 necessary. 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, using positive-training techniques. They also lose interest quickly, so training sessions should last no more than five or 10 minutes.



The Basenji should do well on a high-quality dog food, whether commercially manufactured or home-prepared with your veterinarian’s supervision and approval. Any diet should be appropriate to the dog’s age (puppy, adult, or senior). Some dogs are prone to getting overweight, so watch your dog’s calorie consumption and weight level. Treats can be an important aid in training, but giving too many can cause obesity. Learn about which human foods are safe for dogs, and which are not. Check with your vet if you have any concerns about your dog’s weight or diet. Clean, fresh water should be available at all times.