The Basenji is a breed of hunting dog. It was bred from stock that originated in central Africa. Most of the major kennel clubs in the English-speaking world place the breed in the Hound Group—more specifically, in the sighthound type. The Fédération Cynologique Internationale places the breed in group five, spitz and primitive types, and the United Kennel Club (US) places the breed in the Sighthound & Pariah Group.
The Basenji produces an unusual yodel-like sound commonly called a “baroo”, due to its unusually shaped larynx. This trait also gives the Basenji the nickname “soundless dog”
Basenjis share many unique traits with pariah dog types. Basenjis, like dingoes, New Guinea singing dogs and some other breeds of dog, come into estrus only once annually—as compared to other dog breeds, which may have two or more breeding seasons every year. Both dingoes and Basenji lack a distinctive odor, and are prone to howls, yodels, and other vocalizations over the characteristic bark of modern dog breeds. One theory holds that the latter trait is the result of selecting against dogs that frequently bark—in the traditional Central African context—because barking could lead enemies to humans’ forest encampments. While dogs that resemble the Basenji in some respects are commonplace over much of Africa, the breed’s original foundation stock came from the old growth forest regions of the Congo Basin, where its structure and type were fixed by adaptation to its habitat, as well as use (primarily net hunting in extremely dense old-growth forest vegetation).
The name comes from the Lingala language of the Congo, mbwá na basɛ́nzi which means “village dogs”.
Originating on the continent of Africa, basenji-like dogs have lived with humans for thousands of years. Dogs resembling modern Basenjis, the Tesem, can be seen on stelae in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs, sitting at the feet of their masters, looking just as they do today, with pricked ears and tightly curled tails. Dogs of this type were originally kept for hunting small game by tracking and driving the game into nets.
Europeans first described the type of dog the Basenji breed derives from in 1895—in the Congo. These local dogs, which Europeans identified as a unique breed and called basenji, were prized by locals for their intelligence, courage, speed, and silence. An article published called The Intelligence of Dogs by Stanley Coren, Ph.D. questions this. It ranks the breed at #78 out of 79, which is the second to lowest rank in intelligence. Some consider this an unreliable list, as it focuses on only the ability to listen to a first command. Some consider independent dogs such as Basenjis and Afghan Hounds more intelligent than obedient breeds because of their ability to recognize which actions benefit them, and which simply please another.
Several attempts were made to bring the breed to England, but the earliest imports succumbed to disease. In 1923, for example, Lady Helen Nutting brought six Basenjis with her from Sudan, but all six died from distemper shots they received in quarantine. It was not until the 1930s that foundation stock was successfully established in England, and then to the United States by animal importer Henry Trefflich. It is likely that nearly all the Basenjis in the Western world are descended from these few original imports. The breed was officially accepted into the AKC in 1943. In 1990, the AKC stud book was reopened to 14 new imports at the request of the Basenji Club of America. The stud book was reopened again to selected imported dogs from 1 January 2009 to 31 December 2013. An American-led expedition collected breeding stock in villages in the Basankusu area of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2010. Basenjis are also registered with the UKC.
The popularity of the Basenji in the United States, according to the American Kennel Club, has declined over the past decade, with the breed ranked 71st in 1999, decreasing to 84th in 2006, and to 93rd in 2011.