Archive | Basenjis

Chasing Bears: Another Basenji Tale

 Rocky & Willie

The natives of the Congo prize their basenjis as hunting companions who chase small game into nets. Some say these fearless twenty-five pounders chase lions and other big game also. I have no idea how true that is, but I can tell you about the day our pair treed a bear.

We lived north of the University of California, Santa Barbara, a block from an open stretch of country known as EllwoodEllwood view Mesa that stretches almost a mile along the coast—a perfect place to take. Rocky and Willy to run free. It wasn’t unusual to encounter wildlife—rodents, skunk, an occasional coyote—but this particular morning I spied a large black shape on the ridge of eucalyptus that divided the mesa. It was too far away to make out clearly, but I thought to myself, “If I was in Montana, I’d say that was a bear.” However, I was not in Montana; I was in urban Santa Barbara County, and was about to decide it was a large dog, when Rocky and Willy took off, heading straight for it.

Eucalyptus groveI whistled frantically, the animal disappeared into the trees, and the dogs came back. So much for that. They never would have come back so obediently if it had been anything more interesting than a dog.

Then a neighbor who, like me, took her dog on early morning runs, emerged from the trees wide-eyed. “I don’t believe this. A bear just ran past us!”

“So it was a bear,” I exclaimed.

“At a dead run!”

Neither of us quite believed it, still, but I decided it was time to leash my pair and head for home, where I shared my mystifying experience with my housemate, Joyce. Together we shook our heads. There were no bear on the mesa. By the time I returned home from campus after a day of teaching paper-grading, and meetings, the episode had returned to the imaginary. Some trick of the mind.

Until we turned on the news and there he was “Bear treed on Ellwood Mesa.” They speculated that the drought had driven him out of the mountains, across the freeway to the mesa, but had no idea who or what had chased him into the tree.

Our fearless basenjis, of course.

Willie, Rocky, Bella on beach

Twenty Years of Basenjis



Twenty years ago in Santa Barbara, my friend, Joyce, fell in love with the Scoop, the basenji belonging to the boarding kennel next door to her job. Then one day Spook’s owner showed up at her office door with a red and white pup. “How would you like this one?” Originally from Santa Barbara breeder, Stella Sapios, seven month old Rocky had been returned.  Stella was looking for a home for him, so Joyce arrived at my door to show off the high-stepping Rocky. So began our twenty-year love affair with the barkless hounds of the Congo, a cat-like dog with attitude. Rocky howled when left alone. I could hear him from my condo across the complex from Joyce. She called Stella to ask what she should do. “You need another basenji,” Stella told her. That was the first thing we learned about basenjis. They don’t do well alone. They have, in fact, developed a reputation for destructiveness—especially of upholstered furniture—when bored. And so I acquired Scoop’s brother, Symbella, a three-year-old Stella had kept as a pet. We left them together in the yard of Joyce’s condo when we went to work. Problem solved.

Rocky & Bella

But shortly thereafter, Symbella began to have seizures and was diagnosed with Fanconi, a kidney disease common to the breed. Another lesson in basenjis, who are prone to it. Today, they can perform a DNA test for the disease and so are breeding it out, but then we could only treat her—largely with antacid pills to prevent seizures—and watch her slowly lose her zest for play. A sweet and game little girl still, she was no longer a playmate for Rocky. “You need another basenji,” Stella said again. “How about Willie?”Willy

By that time, Joyce and I had decided to throw our lot together and buy a house, so there was no reason not to have three dogs. We lived a block from open country above an untamed beach—a perfect place to run the dogs off lead. So eighteen-month old brindle, Willie, joined the family.  Basenji Breeders had returned to Africa no  long before this to increase the gene pool and returned with the brindles. This prince was their descendant and closer to his African roots. We tackled the job of running three dogs off lead across the mesa and down the beach. Another thing you need to know about basenjis. They have a mind of their own and consider their own agenda at least equal to yours. Rocky’s idea of coming home was to fling his head, gesturing for us to follow him—then, of course, run off when we got near the house.

Willie, Rocky, Bella on beach

We took them to school, where the trainer kept saying “That’s pretty good for a basenji.” We finally did manage to whistle-train the trio, though the wildlife of the mesa—from rats in the chaparral, to skunks in the underbrush, to coyotes eyeing us from the hill—always competed with the whistle. They are hounds, and the natives of the Congo prize theses dogs for hunting small animals and herding them into nets. We had to learn that the dogs would not go far and would follow us. It just had to be on their own time. It’s tough to alpha down a basenji. I out-waited Rocky one day, after commanding him to come, but it took a two hour sit on a log to do it. Basenjis don’t much like being ordered about, and their attitude conceals their secret. They are suckers for approval. The problem is you have to get them to perform to give it. Symbella lived until she was ten, riding across the mesa to the beach in a knapsack when she became too weak to make it Jettaon her own. When we lost her, we asked Stella, of course, for another adult dog looking for a home. She had none, but promised us Jetta, her prize tricolor, when Jetta was through breeding—which wasn’t yet. Lonesome for our red and white girl, we rescued Lucy –a tale for another time. Each time we lose a basenji, we go to Stella and by now we’ve taken more of her retired breeders or dogs not to be bred, than anyone else. Lucy was followed by Eva (a loan that was never returned) who was followed by Rocket Socks, a retired Basenji Hall of Fame stud. They were joined (finally) by Jetta and her daughter Larra. Then Jetta’s grandson, Dex, joined the family, followed, when Eva died, by Bridget, another rescue. Each is a tale and each has taken us another step in understanding this fascinating breed that seems to listen to a different drummer. Jetta, who was ours for the last eight years of her life, recently gave in to cancer just short of her sixteenth year, so it’s a fitting time to honor the long line of basenjis that have honored us with their lives.

Jetta at 15

Meet Dex

Basenji Dex


Have you ever met a basenji? We ask that question at least once in response to curious looks every time we take our quartet out walking. These barkless hounds from the Congo are still fairly uncommon, probably because they are “different.” It’s an attitude thing. Catlike, they have their own agenda and live on their own terms. Ours sit on windowsills, keeping track of the world, oblivious to us for hours, but their aloofness is deceptive.


They don’t do well without compatriots. Canine compatriots. Alone, they become bored, and bored they become destructive. They have a reputation for unstuffing couches, climbing fences (yes, climbing) and other irritating habits. We’ve had ten of the little beasties, always at least two at a time, and have rarely encountered those behaviors. One fence climber, one leather chewer, one dirty laundry thief is the tally for the ten, though toilet paper is fair game for all. Angels, they are not, however, nor are they easily trainable, which I’m sure contributes to their somewhat tarnished reputation. When we took our first group to school, the trainer’s favorite comment was “That’s pretty good for a basenji.” They aren’t dumb; they just aren’t that interested.


They aren’t bad. Just misunderstood. We are addicted to them and have been a home for our breeder/friends retiring dogs, plus a couple of rescues, for twenty years now. Yell at them and you’ll get nowhere; praise them, and they melt. They climb into bed with us, sit on our laps, and at least one of them is in the same room with us wherever we are.


Last but not least, they yodel. Barkless, they are; mute they are not. They talk, growl, howl, and if you’re lucky, yodel. You can listen to this uniquely basenji song at  But you have to be lucky. In twenty years, Dex is our first true yodeler. We’ve surprised a yodel out of one or two, but none like Dex, who celebrates with song when we discover a pack-mate who’s managed to shut herself in the storeroom or garage. And there’s nothing, but nothing, like being greeted with a howling song of joy when you arrive home after a long day.

Below is Dex and his girls. I’ll be introducing the others as we go along.


Dex and his girls

Dex and his girls

By Judith Kirscht

This post first appeared in Patricia Bloom’s My Magic Dog blog.


Woo Themes, Canvas - Designer, Kate L Williams

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