The Intelligence of the Basenji

There are lists you can find which rank the intelligence of dogs by breed.  German Shepherds and Rottweilers are always near the top, and Chows and Afghan hounds are always near the bottom.  But you have to ask, what exactly is an intelligent dog?  I have always maintained that what people mean by “intelligent”, usually just means “trainable”.  In the case of the Afghan hound, if you let it loose, it will immediately take off for parts unknown.  When you call its name, assuming it can remember its name, it’s already in the next county.  So I can make a case for that being “unintelligent”.  It would be in a dog’s best interest to stay close to the most reliable source of food, it seems.  On the other hand, there’s a big trade-off there.  You have to be confined and can’t run free.  Maybe you’re willing to take your chances on catching your own food.  Who are we to judge what is “smart” when it comes to another species?  In our case, smart usually means “doing what we tell you”.

It will be very rare that you’ll find a dog owner who says, “My dog is really dumb”.  Dog owners will fight to the death about the intelligence of Rocky and Fifi. 

But it never ceases to amaze me that the owners of the most untrained dogs on the planet will insist that they are very smart.  This happens when the dog has learned to do something on its own, such as open the kitchen cabinets with its paw.  Personally, I kind of admire these dogs, but is this a smart dog?  I really prefer well-behaved dogs, but have a secret admiration for dogs who say, I understand what you’re asking, I just don’t give a shit. 

Thus we come to the intelligence of the Basenji breed, which is kind of an oxymoron, like “military intelligence”.  Basenjis are hounds, originally from the Congo.  They don’t bark, although they can make a variety of other sounds.  Males weigh, at maximum, around 25 pounds, and females less.  I have a dog encylopedia which rates dogs on various characteristics, giving them a score of 1-5 on such things as energy level, grooming requirements, friendliness toward strangers or other dogs or other pets, cold and heat tolerance, etc.  And one of those characteristics is “ease of training”  (see, they don’t use the word “intelligence”).  Where a score of 5 is best, Basenjis are rated 1. 

Here is a picture of a purebred Basenji: 


Here’s a picture of my Basenji mix, whose tail is not quite as curled as the ideal, and who also barks.  One of the first things you’ll notice about him is that he’s standing on the picnic table.  Now this is something he “knows” he isn’t supposed to do, but…you guessed it, he doesn’t give a shit.  I will say this for him–what he lacks in intelligence or trainability, he makes up for in aggression.  I have a 70 pound Doberman and a 50 pound Pointer mix, but this guy is the one who has to be muzzled to get his annual vaccinations.  However, if I ever need a rabbit for dinner, he’s my man.  Assuming I can get him to let go of it. 



9 responses to “The Intelligence of the Basenji

  1. I have to agree with your assesment of Chows, I had two of them and they couldn’t even mate. When my female had a litter the pups looked like chows but after a while it was plainly evident that while Connan was asleep some other mutt got the goodies. Glad you posted, I’ve missed you.

  2. Awww…thanks, Nick. I have to say that during my fostering of dogs period, I fostered a purebred female black Chow named Chloe who was as gorgeous a dog as I’ve ever seen in my life. She just couldn’t quite remember anything from one day to the next. But she was incredibly sweet, and sweet and gorgeous is fine with me.

  3. I had to respond – I’m so happy to see the pic of your basenji mix (your basenji mix’s butt). I’m a foster for a no kill shelter & am planning to adopt her…but trying to figure her out by figuring out her breed. I know this sounds dumb, but your pic (yes of the butt) is identical to my girl! But – she doesn’t seem smart at all. She is pretty obedient & she is totally docile (so far ) to my cats. She looks and acts like the breed – besides that – she’s confusing but great. Any experience you can share with me about your dog is appreciated. Thanks for posting!

  4. My guy has never been aggressive with my cats, but not so with strange cats who have the nerve to walk down the street (he can’t get to them). If she’s docile and obedient, she sounds wonderful. I could only wish for that 🙂 But I met another Basenji mix, female, who was just as you describe. She didn’t bark, either.

  5. You are soooo right about the Basenji. I have owned two and my current boy is cat-like and very intelligent. Intelligent, not necessarily “trainable” We went to obedience and if he felt like doing what was asked, he was the best dog there BUT if he did not feel the need to “perform” that day, it was over.
    At he bark park, he did not come when he was called and I had to “outfox” him to get his lead back on (you only get one or two attempts at each trick you play on a Basenji and then they figure it out and you have to be on your toes to come up with another trick). One day, a group of dogs were at the bark park’s rear fence and barking at a deer. I did not see the deer and allowed my boy off his lead. While the other dogs lined the fence barking, my Mookie took one look at the deer, ran to the fence and in ONE jump cleared the 6 foot fence and gave the deer a run for his money. The deer had obviously never seen a Basenji and relied on the inability of the other dogs to just bark at him which was no threat. No bark came from Mookie, just a blur of red and white clearing the fence. The shock and awe on the deer was priceless and Mookie got about 45 minutes of exercise chasing the deer. I was frantic thinking I had lost him. Nope, he showed when he was ready and passed out in the passenger seat for the ride home! Smart, resourceful, loving dogs! Love ’em for who they are, no need to train, they will figure it out for themselves. You have to be trained and have some intelligence to stay a step ahead of a Basenji which beats a game of fetch ANY day.

    • You have to love a basenji to keep it. I’ve mostly own shepherds in the past. but our max a purebred basenji is definitely the most interesting and intelligent dog I’ve ever known. I’ve taught max tricks but as stated he does them when he wants to . Max loves the dog parks After he lets them know he’s not afraid of any of them. In a short time every dog there will be chasing hill or running from him. When They get loose and they will just wave and pray he’s not coming back till he wants to. We have a half acre when a car goes by he doesnt chase it but race is it then runs the entire half acre as if some victory lap. people will drive by and stop and just watch him. There are like miniature greyhounds and love to run.
      Got to go max has a toy in his mouth and wants to play right now.
      Basenjis are an adventure. we love’em

      dog there will be running from him or after

      hlm besinjis are very fast and agile. And like
      the Afghan story above when he gets loose
      and they. Will. Just wave and pray you

  6. Thanks for commenting, Betty. Your story about the deer reminds me of a story about my Basenji–he was originally a foster dog that I eventually adopted. But first, he was adopted by an older couple who lived out in the country and trapped feral cats, which they would have spayed or neutered, then released. They fed a large number of them regularly in their back yard, which naturally drove the dog nuts. So one day, he CLIMBED down a wrought iron column from the second floor of their house. I know the only reason he doesn’t climb my chain link fence is because he chooses not to.

  7. I LOVED this article. My boyfriend and I have a cheagle (chihuahua and beagle mix) and he has all the good habits of both breeds and none of the annoying traits. He is also incredibly well trained and obedient. We have loved him and we decided recently that he needed a brother to play with. We adopted a chihuahua/basenji mix and life had been one big bundle of fun since then. He loves to play and play and play…. and he doesn’t EVER listen. He is the most mischievous dog ever but he’s so creative about it that we can’t do anything but laugh. He is training us lol. To save our sanity, we are putting him in the crate for when he and our other dog will be at home alone. Fortunately, that is maybe an hour every other day, so I don’t feel guilty about it.
    We love his craziness and he is a total lap dog who is very, very affectionate with us and loves to give kisses. I would totally recommend this breed to anyone who is looking to liven up their lives a little. We weren’t really looking to do that (between the two of us we have seven kids) but we wouldn’t give this little guy up for the world. The challenge to keep him entertained is a fun one and we love it!!

  8. I had a chow-poodle mix and he sounds like your Basenji

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