The Dog I've Always Wanted

Canine Behavior, Training and Photography

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Cleo Comes to Stay — life with a middleaged Basenji

December 28th, 2008 · · Live From The Field, Living With Basenji

145_033_cropMy interest in sighthounds was certainly sparked by my contact with a couple of them at the daycare; greyhounds to be precise. Little did I know that I would soon be living with a basenji. It was the usual story, a dog needing to be rehomed came for the weekend and my daughter was smitten and it seemed to me that Cleo would be an interesting addition to our existing pack of two dogs.Her house training was impeccable. When she needed to go out she would begin running in circles at an increasing speed until someone took her outside. She has refined the form of this message. Now she taps on the door with her front claws for in and out.

Basenjis are an ancient race of dogs thought to have originated in the middle east and found their way to central Africa. They have  traditionally been used to hunt in packs their function being to chase small game into nets. During the chase basenjis wear large bells to intimidate their prey because they do not bark. It’s not hard to imagine Cleo avidly engaged in such a pursuit. Some people describe basenjis as cat-like. They are comfort seekers and they can seem aloof. They are extraordinarily clean; they neither shed nor smell. Perhaps most remarkable of all they do not bark. This is not to say that they are silent. Basenjis make an odd yodelling sound and they are also capable of a blood curdling scream when hurt or distraught. They can rightfully be described as a primitive breed which is to say that they are instinct driven dogs whose instinctive behaviour is more difficult to overcome with training than most other breeds.

Of Cleo’s intelligence I have no doubt but it is slow work to train her. She knows “sit” of course but she seems to go through some kind of internal struggle each time she is asked to perform this feat. It takes physical self-restraint for her to keep her rear on the floor. She is also now crate trained which is useful when the humans are all away because she does tend to get into things that interest her but are not her business. I am very grateful that Cleo is middleaged; I am doubtful that I’d have the stamina to live with a basenji puppy. Watching Cleo run, which she does with fair speed and a good deal of grace, I can imagine the futility of pursuit. Atypically she has excellent recall in a large fenced field. I confess that I treat trained her for this bit because I had heard it was so difficult. However, on the two occasions so far on which she has bolted out the front door chasing was necessary and no amount of calling had any effect. She was oblivious to everything except her own pursuits, running and sniffing. Both times she was apprehended when she made a pit stop. She was quite passive and seemed to enjoy being carried home in the pursuer’s arms.

Basenjis are consummate escape artists. They are canine Houdinis. They are also door bolters extrodinaire. Therefore security becomes a very big deal when a basenji moves in. Chainlink fence is a breeze to climb as Cleo has ably demonstrated at a baseball diamond. Impressive. Yards that are secure for other dogs may not hold a basenji. In addition to remarkable climbing skills they are also talented diggers. It is vital to remember the strength of a basenji’s prey drive. Door bolting must be guarded against. Training the children to be unfailingly conscientious about closing doors and gates is something of a challenge. I have little notes posted now.  The crate is a good safe place for her during hectic times when there are a lot of people coming and going. It is near a heat outlet and has a big pillow in it. She goes in when she’s told and likes to chew a rawhide and lounge.

Cleo seems to be quite high strung and hyper-alert.  When she is agitated she runs in circles. We saw a lot of that in her early days with us. She’s much calmer now but still quite distractable.While she is eating if anyone enters the room she will stop eating and run around for a minute. Since she is now living with three cats and two other dogs she is learning a lot. She seems to have an innate respect for cats which is rather unusual for a sight hound. She gets along quite nicely with our other dogs even playing with our husky mix a kind of rough and tumble chase and wrassle. She does have some food guarding issues with other dogs but is making progress on that front. As far as dogs outside her own pack she prefers large males and can be quite rude to smaller dogs. Although after initially growling at them and showing some teeth she usually just ignores them.

Cleo loves to run. When she has the chance to go full out it is quite wonderful to watch because she is, as in all things, economical of movement and graceful. Another characteristic we all love about Cleo is her alertness. She does not miss anything. She bustles around the house as though she owns it and although I don’t like to use the “d” word she does need reminding sometimes.

She also will swim; if carried out into the water and released she will swim for shore. We kept her on a long line for this game and she willingly repeated it over and over. Cleo is also a really dedicated sun worshiper and has a lot of pleasure basking. She has surprised me by having more stamina for cold than I would have expected. Her coat has grown in thicker for winter and she is quite a trooper on blizzardy days. She has a coat from Chilly Dog. She wears her hoodie under it on the worst days. She really likes wearing clothes!

Cleo is really my eleven year old daughter’s dog and she sleeps with her at night. She likes to be completely under the covers. She often seeks affection and has such an endearing intelligent face that it is hard to stay annoyed with her even when she has been using the garbage can for own ends. Cleo is adept at violating things that I had made secure against my other dogs partly because she is so agile and also because she is very persistent. She only destroys tissues and papers on the floor and sometimes scrounged from waste baskets. Yes, my daughter was delighted to be able to say, “My basenji ate my homework!” and have it be true.

It is a learning experience for the humans too. Six months into life with Cleo there are no major problems and lots of good times and fun. She enjoys walks very much and is always eager for one. When she first came to us she pulled constantly on the leash and would dart across in front of us. I use a Halti (size xs) for her now and she loves it and walks very nicely.
The best resource I found that really filled me in on what exactly it means to share your home with a basenji is BRAT  (basenji rescue and transport). This is an excellent website full of useful information especially for the uninitiated. You can print out a copy of the short book “What Ever Family Should Know Before They Get a Basenji”. It is invaluable.


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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 gpz // Jan 1, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    HI :-)

    Really liked this post about Cleo and glad you wrote it up. This new member of your family (the canine addition) really peaked my interest the moment I saw her. I’ve known labs and shepherds and poodles and st bernards and huskies and terriers, big dogs, small dogs, furry ones and short haired ones, but I find it so exciting to come in contact with a new breed; and this is the first Basenji I’ve met up close. One of the ancient breeds no less.

    The first thing that I noticed was her striking face. She looks like she just walked out of the Pharaoh’s palace and has a bit of a regal disposition! Unlike your other two dogs, Cleo did not come to greet me with a friendly slobbing lick and the curiousity as to who I was. When she strode up the corridor I felt as if she was expecting me to beseech permission from her to enter the royal kingdom, or at the very least to pay homage to her and bow respectfully before crossing the threshold. I sensed a tinge of incredulity in her as she left, as if she were thinking, “This lowly human person doesn’t even know he’s being disrespectful but is not even worth my bother”.

    I enjoyed reading your detailed description about her many unique traits in the write up.

    Great picture too.


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