Basenji 101: 12 Intriguing Facts About Africa’s Barkless Dog

Learn 12 cool facts about the basenji! These pint-sized pals have a special quality: they don’t bark!

Nov 27, 2023By Michael C., BA Fisheries and Wildlife
basenji facts about africa barkless dog

The basenji is a distinct breed of dog that’s like no other. Hailing from the rainforests of Central Africa, this canine is among the oldest breeds of dogs surviving today. These cuties have come a long way since they were used as hunting dogs. Today, they’re a proud member of the American Kennel Club’s Hound Group, and they compete in shows around the nation.

Read on to learn more about this unique African dog breed!

1. They Are from the Congo

basenji outside in nature
Image credit: Niko Herlin/Wikimedia Commons

The basenji hails from the rainforests and savannas of the Congo in Central Africa. Various indigenous tribes have bred and kept the basenjis as hunting companions for thousands of years. Even today, plenty of these dogs are kept throughout their country of origin.

In Congo, the basenjis are known as the “dogs of the bush.” Historically, basenjis were seemingly kept more so by hunter-gatherers rather than pastoralists or other farmers. In some tribes, basenjis were used as a source of food when times were tough, just like other livestock. A few tribes, typically shamans or medicine men, even kept basenjis (along with other dogs) for religious or shamanistic purposes, often using them for sacrificial rituals.

Basenjis eventually spread through other parts of Africa, including the Sudan and Kenya. This was mainly a result of migration from the various tribes that kept the breed. As we’ll share later, basenjis didn’t make their Western world debut until the 1900s.

2. They Don’t Bark! (They Yodel…Kind of)

basenji at beach
Image credit: Happy Tinfoil Cat/Flickr

Unlike most other dog breeds, the basenji cannot truly bark. However, this dog isn’t mute contrary to popular belief; instead of barking, it either growls or makes a sound often compared to yodeling.

This is because their larynx (or voicebox) is shaped differently from other dogs. The vocal folds are rather shallow in shape, which allows the basenji to produce their distinctive sounds. A few owners occasionally report that their basenjis bark like normal dogs; however, this may be due to interbreeding.

Whether it was a naturally occurring trait or selectively bred by humans is debated. Some believe that the basenji was bred with human interference this way to prevent predators from being attracted to villages, as barking could get the attention of nearby animals.

Another theory is that it keeps the dogs quiet while on hunting expeditions, allowing hunters to remain stealthy. Whatever the case may be, this trait has also given the basenji an alternate name: “the African barkless dog.”

3. Basenjis Were Bred for Hunting Small Game

basenji in field
Image credit: Madjuszka/Getty Images

The basenji was bred by Congolese tribes for hunting for other animals. This breed sports both an exceptional sense of sight and smell. Because of this, the basenji is considered a true hunting dog breed.

The basenji has been bred to pursue various prey, including gazelles and other small game. The dogs would chase their prey right into nets to be collected by hunters later. As basenjis are relatively quiet dogs, hunters often place bells around their waists or necks to easily locate them when needed.

Basenjis also serve as effective pest control in villages, as dogs prey upon rodents that may destroy crops or spread diseases. Thanks to their strong prey drive, they’re very efficient at controlling rodents and other pests.

In Kenya, the basenji has been reportedly used to hunt lions by some Masai tribes. The dogs would be used to lure out the big cats, and after bringing out the beasts, human hunters would slay them with spears.

4. They Are a Primitive Dog Breed

basenji portrait in white background
Image credit: bublikhaus/Freepik

Thanks to recent research, Basenjis are confirmed to be the second oldest known dog breed today; only the dingo is older. Thanks to isolation from other dog lineages, the basenji has remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years. Rock paintings discovered in Libya from around 6,000 BCE depict basenji-like dogs.

Basenjis share primitive traits that are typically displayed by other ancient lines of dog breeds, including the Tibetan mastiff and other spitz dog breeds. A very notable trait is that females only go into estrus around once per year; most other dog breeds can have two or even more.

The basenji’s genome has been successfully assembled in 2021. Its unique genetic configuration serves as a viable reference for future studies that involve genetics for other dog breeds from an evolutionary perspective.

Some scholars previously believed that the basenji was part jackal, as a few tribes have attempted to crossbreed dogs with African jackals. This has proven to be untrue, as the basenji has been confirmed to be a purebred dog with research.

5. Basenji-Like Dogs Were Kept by Ancient Egyptians

egyptian hieroglyphic of dogs
Image credit: unknown

Though the basenji itself originated in Central Africa, its probable ancestors were brought into this region by migrating human tribes. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and other artifacts dating as early as 3200 BCE depict dogs with distinctive traits shared by the basenji; such traits include pointy ears and a tail curled up to its back. These hounds were known as the Tesem and were used as hunting dogs, just like the basenji. Among the earliest recorded instances of the Tesem were discovered in Pharoah Khufu’s tomb.

The Tesem (or at least Tesem-type dogs) are believed to be the ancestors of not only the basenji but other similar African village dog landraces or breeds as well (most notably the Africanis). The pharaoh hound of Malta may have also been descended from Tesem-like dogs due to its similar appearance, though this is still debated.

Unfortunately, the Tesem eventually became extinct by the time of the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BCE) as they were replaced by dogs similar to the saluki and other sighthound breeds.

6. Basenjis Are Fairly Low Maintenance Dogs

two basenjis on sofa
Image credit: Pimienta 83/Wikimedia Commons

The basenji typically lacks the characteristic odor that most other dog breeds have. In terms of cleanliness, the basenji is a low-maintenance dog, as bathing is seldom required for this breed. This is because they self-groom themselves, unlike many other dogs. Of course, there’s no harm in bathing them once in a while.

Though a basenji doesn’t need to be bathed often, it still requires other maintenance like other dog breeds. For instance, to keep their short coats nice and healthy, a simple brushing session with a grooming mitt or hound glove is all that’s needed. Regular grooming can remove loose hairs as they periodically shed their fur, and this should be done around every two weeks. Using other brushes or even a shedding blade can be harsh on both the basenji’s fur and skin and should be avoided.

Like other dogs, their nails also must be trimmed regularly, as overgrown nails can cause pain when walking. Regular teeth brushing is also important, as dogs can also develop gum diseases and plaque if ignored.

7. Basenjis Are the Cats of the Dog World

basenji and owner at dog show
Image credit: Niko Herlin/Wikimedia Commons

The basenji is commonly compared to a cat by many, simply due to their similar behaviors that set them apart from other dogs. For instance, this breed grooms itself, just like a typical housecat.

Also like a feline, the basenji tends to be more aloof and independent (another characteristic trait of this dog breed). Basenjis are known for their independent nature; they can be very stubborn and will often disobey commands. Training sessions usually have to be quick and brief, as this breed is known to lose interest very quickly.

Though the basenji is almost feline in behavior, this has to be said: this breed is not a cat. Just like any other dog breed, the basenji is to be raised just like any other dog, only with a few extra breed-specific steps. If you want to raise a cat-like pet, then the answer is simple: just adopt a cat. As with all dogs, proper and consistent training should start early in puppyhood (which is important for any breed).

8. They Only Came to the West in the 1900s

basenji and owner at dog show.v1
Image credit: Canarian/Wikimedia Commons

The basenji was only recorded and described by the Europeans in the year 1895. The first imported dogs, which were known as Congo terriers or African bush dogs, appeared in England during the early 1900s. Unfortunately, most of the dogs succumbed to canine distemper and other common health issues. It took a few tries to finally bring in dogs without losing them to disease.

In the 1930s, a breeder by the name of Olivia Burn imported basenjis from the Congo; however, as with other imports, it took multiple tries for the dogs to thrive. She would eventually become the first breeder to successfully breed the basenji right in England.

In the United States, the founding population of the basenji was imported by animal dealer Henry Trefflich, who also imported many exotic animals for zoos, circuses, and sideshows. Most basenjis in the United States today are believed to be descended from this group of dogs.

The American Kennel Club would accept the basenji as a recognized breed in 1944. When the canine competes in dog shows, judges look for a ring-shaped tail, smooth coat, and “swift, tireless trot.”

9. They’re Spotlighted in African Folklore

basenji in grassy field
Image credit: alektas/Pixabay

The basenji has been the subject of various myths and folklore throughout Central Africa. One of the most well-known stories comes from the ethnic Bantu tribe known as the Nyanga, who created a legend surrounding this dog. It goes:

Long ago, there was a talking basenji named Rukuba, who was owned by the fire god, Nyamuriri. A Nyanga man named Mikhango stumbled upon Nyamuriri’s hut in the jungle and met Rukuba. The dog gave Mikhango fire as a gift of friendship. Nyamuriri found out and exiled Rukuba to live with the humans.

While Rukuba settled well with the humans, the Nyanga chieftain noted the dog’s exceptional abilities and wanted to turn the dog into a messenger between the humans and the gods. Knowing that sending messages back and forth forever would be miserable, Rukuba decided not to speak ever again, and that is how the basenji lost its voice.

10. They Are Great Runners!

basenji running through field
Image credit: alektas/Pixabay

As the basenji was bred to pursue animals, it is a fast dog. Though many other dog breeds can run much faster than the basenji, the endurance of the basenji can allow them to outrun their speedier cousins!

The basenji’s average running speed is around 23.8 miles per hour (38.3 kilometers per hour), and the fastest recorded individual on record reached 30.83 miles per hour (38.3 kilometers per hour). As the game animals basenjis hunted were also runners (for instance, antelope), their endurance gave the dogs an advantage in pursuing prey.

As they’re great runners and sport a high-prey drive, it is NEVER recommended to walk a basenji off-leash. No matter how well-behaved a basenji may be, these canines have high prey drives. Even the most well-behaved basenjis may not be able to resist the temptation of chasing down a squirrel or rabbit frolicking nearby. It only takes one excited chase to lose track of your friend.

11. They Need Lots of Exercise

two basenjis exploring on a hill
Image credit: fugzu/Flickr

So, how much exercise do dogs need? Does the basenji need more or less?

The basenji is no couch potato; this dog requires lots of daily exercise. It is highly recommended that a basenji gets around two to three hours of exercise every day. Although an hour-long walking session may sometimes suffice, the more the merrier. A large, fenced-in yard is highly recommended. Games such as fetch, frisbee, or even tug-o-war are fantastic for dogs. If basenjis don't get their required exercise, they’ll become bored and will resort to destructive behaviors.

Basenjis are also amazing athletes for canine sports competitions. A breed-specific dog sport for basenjis is coursing, as they’re profound hunters by nature. Coursing is an activity that involves the dogs chasing after a plastic lure through a circuit. As the basenji is a sighthound, it is a great way to allow them to exercise their natural instincts.

12. Basenjis Are Great Dogs for the Right Owners

basenji in woods
Image credit: Maria itina/Getty Images

The basenji is truly a unique dog breed like no other. However, this breed is not for first-time dog owners, as they are full of energy and can be difficult to train.

Basenjis are relatively healthy dogs but are prone to some health ailments, such as hip dysplasia, hypothyroidism, progressive retinal atrophy (which can lead to blindness), and most notably, Fanconi syndrome (a genetic health disorder that affects the kidneys).

Basenjis are great running companions and best for families with active lifestyles. Though they can be great family dogs, basenjis are best suited for those with older children who know how to properly interact with pets. The basenji is an ideal companion for those who want a quiet, clean dog but are also willing to raise a challenging breed. Always do your research before bringing a basenji to its forever home!

Michael C.
By Michael C.BA Fisheries and Wildlife

Michael holds a BS degree in Fisheries and Wildlife from Michigan State University. He formerly worked at a pet store as an animal care associate and is the former president of the MSU Herpetological Society. Michael currently owns three snakes (a corn snake, a Kenyan sand boa, and a checkered garter snake) and a leopard gecko. Interests include almost anything animal-related. Michael enjoys drawing, gaming, and having fun in his free time.