Survival of the Fittest - in this case ME

by Sally Wallis - Zande Basenjis

first published Bay State Basenji Club Newsletter, USA, February 1997

We currently have seven Basenjis, three experienced stud boys and four nubile lovelies, living in harmony as house-pets. They are not destructive, our home is not a mess and we regard them as our family; children to be loved, disciplined, cherished and appreciated as the hunting hounds they are.

Apart from one accident of which more anon, there is no question of allowing the boys and girls to arrange matings according to their own preferences. They do have their favourites. One old darling who lived to fourteen and a half but is sadly no longer with us, used to cuddle up to one particular male and try to share his bed. She'd put her paw on his head and say "take me, I'm YOURS" from the very first day of her season. Donner used to look beseechingly up at us - "get this woman away from me, she is wasting my time..."

As soon as the slightest interest is shown by any of the boys, they are relegated to a highly desirable residence in part of the orchard which is fenced. They have a dog-door so they can use the trees or lie in the sun. The shed is south facing with large heaters, comfy bed boxes filled with cast-off curtains collected from all over the village and huge windows to let in the sunshine. In the morning Marvin takes them for a long walk around the woods and fields and after lunch I set aside all else and enjoy their company, perhaps along the river and perhaps in the woods. Wherever we go, we leave by a different gate and frequent a different area to any used by our seasonable girls. The boys are quite happy but I still fret until they are all back together in the house again.

Walking three boys together is no problem. They don't pull much as you can see from our Rogues Gallery and pictures of seven being walked at once. In fact in our efforts to prevent them defecating on the neat lawns and gardens of the village, we all rush past the houses to the wide verge at the end. They know the form and bound along quite happily. Some of the girls are not so disciplined. Hope doesn't pull but manages to plait the long walking leads of the pack very efficiently. She likes to run forward, hang back, overtake, skip in front of her sister and fall behind her aunt and after a hundred yards or so it is necessary to stop and unravel things. On one occasion when I had six of them down by the river, a large black shaggy pal of theirs arrived and they all rushed towards her. I took the only possible cause of action and fell down, swinging their leads around and letting the Basenjis cavort in circles around my head.

It has happened on a very few occasions that we have misjudged the timing and there has been a face-off or worse between two of the boys. Donner is far too much of a gentleman to mix it over a mere woman. In the Spring of 1996 the two younger ones had a humdinger of a fight - and of course, I was on my own. With a great deal of difficulty I managed to choke the more aggressive Curly until he let go of his father and fling him over the fence (he wasn't going anywhere - he was playing "let me KILL him"), store Deedles briefly in the car while I placed a small cage inside a huge cage for protection against tail-grabbing and then caged the boys before retiring gracefully, leaving them glaring at each other.

Next morning after breakfast and their usual walk they lay in the same bed-box, licking each other's wounds.

We have come to realise the need to keep the dogs together and within sight and smell of each other if there is any possibility of bother, taking them for a walk on neutral territory as soon as convenient. Immediately after one of the three boys has enjoyed an assignation with a pretty lady we take all three for a road-walk, allowing them to over-take each other and take turns being leader until they are sniffing the same blade of grass. Sometimes we walk a few hundred yards before they settle down again and one person can take all three leads, sometimes we have to go for a couple of miles.

If I dwell longer on this aspect than I intended it is to emphasise that it really is no big deal. Fights and re-integration of combatants can be handled sensibly but must be dealt with at once, calmly and without panic. The longer they are away from each other, the more difficult it is to get them back together. We never react when they are mouthing off at each other. It is only when they fall silent that there is serious trouble, and by never letting it get that far, we manage to avoid problems. The few fights they have had have almost always been to a large extent our fault. Either mis-timing the segregation of the boys, or underestimating a developing situation.


Often, especially of an evening when the pack has decided to remain in the kitchen by our large kitchen range, there is a deal of grumbling. "Don't sit on my head." "Well, let me get in beside you." "Move over will you ?" until they all get comfortably settled.

Most of the time they aren't out and about around the garden, they sleep in front of the Aga on an old piece of stair-carpet. As the pack increases in size, cooking has become more difficult. Stirring a critical sauce while leaning further and further over the pan as the dogs pile up on ones feet, explaining that this saucepan IS going into that oven and the dogs lying against it can MOVE out of my WAY.....

We have saloon-style half-doors set close to the floor between the kitchen and the rest of the house and a gate at the top of the stairs. The dogs sit on laps in front of the TV in the evenings and during hot weather they love to lie up the stair-well where they can chose a sun-flooded tread. The half-doors are normally an effective barrier, however one young eight month old lad taught himself that a combination of jumping and climbing up the louvres brought the good things of life. Tuppy had just come to live with us as a three year old and we realised she was possibly in season so kept her in the kitchen and allowed the boys their chairs in the lounge. The Dastardly Deed cleared the barrier and was into the gal before we realised what was happening. Resultant singleton puppy was Top Brood Bitch 1989 (Ziggy).

The dogs have the freedom of the garden, which is dog-proof unless some idiot leaves a gate open.... This gives them a large area of lawns, shrubbery and borders but the vegetable garden and fruit cage are now off-limits. We had to erect chain link fencing in order to protect produce grown for our own table from the ravages of these omnivorous hounds. Sweet corn, cobs thoroughly chewed, raspberries eaten from the vines before they are ripe, Brussels Sprouts torn from the stalks by voracious puppies - And you should see what generations of puppies do to my herb-garden which is conveniently situated by the back door...

The idea is NOT, as you might think from the photos, that a puppy may bite off two years fruiting of tayberries (they only fruit on year-old wood and she chewed that off at bottom) or allowing a litter to strip the Brussels Sprouts.

We find that four foot chain link is adequate to contain all but Shani so long as it is loosely strung. If a Basenji feels secure, he or she will climb but on a sagging fence they don't feel safe - so the vegetables probably are.

We have house rules - we must if we are to live in harmony with the pack. We expect the dogs to respect our property and in return we will feed, love, exercise, spoil, love (more) and tend them. When they have their working clothes on we expect instant obedience even though, being Basenjis they don't always give it. Their working uniform is simple and comprises a show collar and show-lead. Members of the pack who are currently being campaigned are practised in the garden for a few minutes each day, stacked suddenly and without warning and know what to do to get a tidbit. They are supposed to do what is expected of them - just for a short while.

We do not expect them to tear drapes or destroy furniture, and as long as we carelessly leave the daily papers and a few final demands within their reach (and make a tremendous fuss when these are shredded) they do not turn their attentions to our more treasured possessions.

Tuppy & Hope

However, if one of us occupies a comfy chair, how can we possibly turn the pack away ?

Marvin has made a mesh gate for the greenhouse but young Plessy manages to worm her way in unless all the available hitches are firmly in place. Once in she gets watered, liberally, along with the tomatoes she has probably been trying to dig up. The watering can is very efficacious and Madame hates to be laughed at while she shakes her way to freedom. We don't use water-squirts or cattle prods or anything aggressive. They have to learn to respond to our voices. If they learn early enough that "NO" means "NO", and there is no chance that Mum will fall about laughing at their antics and let them get away with mayhem, they may not always behave and they will never stop trying to outwit a mere human - but life can be quite simple and extremely pleasant.


A typical "Hey, we have VISITORS" scene of welcome

Probably the most important house rule is that neither side must be put into a face-losing situation. Basenjis hate to lose face and it really isn't necessary to back them up against the wall. They are only a tad removed from the wild as it is and their natural reaction to finding themselves up against it is going to be to fight their way out. Ours have gone into instant attack/defence mode a couple of times. On one occasion I was having a mild attack of asthma during ring-craft and had hitched Curly and Plessy to the bench I was sitting on. A newcomer with a GSD allowed her dog to bound up to me and get between the two Basenjis. The GSD nearly lost an ear but I didn't apologise and the ring-craft trainer understood exactly why I didn't. She took the GSD owner aside and filled her ear with words of wisdom on canine behaviour.

On a walk in the woods with the three boys on leads, a free running yellow Lab barrelled down the hill behind us and cannoned into the back of my legs, nearly knocking me over. The Basenjis didn't wait to find out if the Labrador was on play or evil bent. They reacted totally predictably and again, were not chastised. This sort of behaviour is not to be condoned but on the other hand, a degree of understanding is essential. I don't think a dog should be punished for instant instinctive reaction, any more than, after running away, it should be chastised for returning to Master's call.


These are typical scenes of an evening - Marvin finds reading without interruption difficult so turns to the TV...


Knitting is NOT made easy for me either... but we have already explored the need for comfy chairs

Chair Full

Sometimes we can persuade them to sit on their own though ...

We never waken a Basenji too rapidly when they are fast asleep. We talk to them, approach them gently and, when they are thoroughly alert and probably rolling over on their backs, chuck them out to make themselves comfortable for the night. This is all part of the non-aggression, face-saving discipline for us as well as for them.

From puppyhood onwards, we get our pack into the habit of giving up bones, toys, chews, whatever they are working on at the time, as soon as required to do so. Paper-towels and hankies often have to be gouged from their mouths and we have no intention of being bitten the while. They have new bones whenever we can prevail upon the local butcher to let us have shank bones cut into reasonably sized pieces. We chuck these around the garden early on days of clement weather so they can disperse and chew to their heart's content. Within half an hour or so, there is the inevitable change around. "Is you bone better than mine ?" "I think I will have a go at yours for a while." A certain amount of grumbling takes place but it sorts itself out and we take the fresh bones up entirely after a couple of hours lest the marrow make their stools loose. They get them again on the morrow. And when we go around to gather them up - they give them up. There is no argument.

For tidbits, we boil a large piece of ox-liver thoroughly with a couple of cloves of garlic, slice and dry it slightly and freeze on a wire rack prior to bagging it up in the freezer. A slice in the pocket (in a plastic bag) is thawed by the time we are in the show-ring or the woods.


They are not proud though - they'll beg for treats anywhere, are time.

We have particularly spots in the woods - a certain tree, an intersection - and, regardless of which way we go, left about, right about, figure of eight, just a ramble, we expect everyone to be there when we arrive. And they are. Its like feeding a nest of chattering starlings. "ME first Mummy" "I got here first", "Me too" as they all stand up on hind legs and shout. We use liver to train pups to return from off-lead hunting too. Just start 'em young enough, well away from any traffic.

No-one runs free (except in our own garden) while the bitches are in season. The boys might make a bee-line for hearth and home. And in the woods we learned some time ago that only one of the boys can be allowed to go free at any one time. They get hitched several hundred yards from the car on the way home. Donner used to rush past at great speed and do a couple of extra laps of that particular block of pine trees before allowing himself to be captured and hitched. Deedles had only one speed - flat out - and only one direction - dead ahead. Nowadays alas, both are old men with less energy.

They are perpetual and enchanting thieves and, as well as being crated in the car always and without exception, they are caged while we have dinner parties. They sleep quite happily after we have sorted them out into two or three large cages. For some reason, they always try to start out all in the same one and this is a wonderful ice-breaker if the conversation hasn't heated up yet.

Their own feeding routine is quite simple, as well as being hilarious for spectators.

The rotation must be strictly adhered to. Ziggy gets hers first by the back door. If weather is dry, outside it. Second is Plessy, alongside the radiator and half under the book shelf. Third and fourth are Curly (behind the fridge) and Hope, a few feet away. Fifth and sixth are Shani (put down with the right hand along by the Aga) and Deedles (left hand and slid across towards the other door). Last is Donner, middle of the kitchen. It used to be Donner with the left hand and Tuppy with the right.

They know the order of their feeding and don't dive into one another's bowls until all that is left is crumbs. Then they'll swap around but without agression.

Feeding Time

Dog-food preparation gets an enthusiastic audience

While their food (they are fed identical meals twice a day) is being prepared, there is a great deal of rushing around and shouting. Donner talks, is positively syllabic. Hope hits the others on the head and yodels. Shani grabs a bone and plays with it and then yodels - very soprano. Plessy gives a muted roar which turns into a crow. Curly rushes under the table and out again and round again and out again. Ziggy tries to chin herself up onto the work-surface but is such a little bitty thing, she can't see over the top.

Deedles just sits there, waiting. If something diverts Marvin's attention so he turns away, even for a second, he's up - and the food is on the floor.

He is, and Donner used to be, master of the art of suckering the others (or us). Donner would stalk into the lounge of an evening, look around and see all the laps were occupied. So, down on his elbows, waggle of the backside and he'd shoot up the stairs. The others would shout "its a GAME" and rush in pursuit. As soon as a lap came free, he'd make a tremendous leap across the room and land four-square on Marvin. Or if his favourite spot by the Aga was taken, he'd rush to the window and indicate visitors - until everyone else had paws on the windowsill and Donner was back and comfortably settled.

Nowadays Deedles still chases his tail in the middle of the kitchen, hoping that his antics will inspire a lapse in concentration so he can steal something - anything. Bread, home-made and sometimes not even cooked yet seems to be his favourite.

The pack is ageing. Donner is fourteen now and Deedles nearly thirteen. By the laws of nature they can't be with us for ever. Plessy is the only girl young enough (at two and a half) to have a litter. Shani, Hope and Ziggy range from eight through to twelve years. Future puppies will be integrated into the household and taught to live with the rest of the pack according to the house rules. Marvin and I aren't getting any younger either, so you can be assured we will continue to maintain harmony in the house.

Since writing the above, Donner, Tuppy, Deedles, Ziggy, Shani and Hope have all passed beyond our ken.They all lived well into their teens and we miss them badly. The current 'pack - Curly, Plessy, Chezz, Firbi & Trouble are mainteining the standards of wickedness and the life-style of chaos

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Sally & Marvin Wallis
Zande Basenjis
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