Wednesday, July 15, 2009

When a Suburban Basenji Comes to the Big City

Just over a year ago, I was sitting in my living room with my feline companion of 19 years, chuckling as I saw a van drive up to the house across the street. Every day at the same time, it would pull up and a young woman would get out. Seconds later, she would return with a dog on leash, and I would marvel at the list of services on the side of the van. While I would never hesitate to lavish the care needed on my cat, the scale of what was available for dogs seemed so excessive and alien to my universe.

A few months later, my cat would cross the Rainbow Bridge, and the decision of what to do next hovered over me for weeks. My cat Bunter and his brother Whimsey (who passed on two years earlier) had been a part of my life for nearly two decades, and the thought of “replacing” them with another cat just seemed wrong. It wasn’t like finding a duplicate hot water heater when the old one wears out. I knew it was time to open a new chapter.

Basenjis had held my fascination for more than a decade, and I’d seriously considered adding one to my household many times but knew it just wasn’t the right thing to do with two cats, especially in their twilight years. So after a month of having a bit of space, I took a plunge and filled out the online forms with BRAT, realizing that it might be many months before a fostering opportunity came up. Less than two weeks later, my first foster arrived, a sadly disturbed basenji boy with significant aggression problems (a topic I’ve written about earlier), but he also blessed me with two months of learning the various challenges and many more rewards that convinced me that having a basenji in my life was a must.

There was another month of transition as I anxiously waited for the next foster to arrive. After a first time trial by fire, I wanted to make sure that I was thoroughly mindful of getting the perfect match, but expecting to expect the unexpected with a rescue basenji.

On a rainy Saturday evening just before Thanksgiving 2008, I drove to the San Francisco Airport’s cargo delivery to pick up Bow, arriving from Michigan. My hope was that she would live up to all the reports and descriptions on her profile. Much to my delight, indoors she was everything I’d been told she would be – affectionate, not a counter surfer, not a trash can grazer, not destructive when left alone. Indoors a true basenji princess.

While I had been warned that she tended to pull on walks, there had not been any way to gauge how a basenji who’d spent her first six years in suburban Chicago would react to an inner city neighborhood of San Francisco. The Mission District has a wealth of noisy buses, ice cream vendor push carts with jangling bells, lots of taquerias with tempting chicken bones scattered on the pavement, souped up muscles cars speeding around corners with pitch volume rap music rattling the windows, and a wealth of dogs of every size and temperament. Adding to that is one of the busiest skate board parks just two blocks away, and on some afternoons it’s not unusual to see a dozen skateboarders whizzing by, some times half of them with off leash dogs chasing behind them.

For any dog, this is sensory overload, but for a basenji used to quiet, oak-lined suburban streets it is a huge shock. My first foster experience gave me a boot camp grounding in walking skills, but I clearly knew that I needed more help. Beginning with my first foster I had scoured the city for its wide range of trainers and behaviorists. From dominance and aversion techniques on one end to new age spiritual-attunement-with-your-dog gurus can be found in San Francisco. The biggest challenge for Bow was encountering other dogs, especially those off leash. The percentage of people in San Francisco oblivious to leash laws or deluded into thinking they have perfect recall of their dog is alarming. During the first couple of months there was at least one time a week when another dog came barreling across the street and pushed my leash control skills to the max.

It was clear that Bow and I needed the right kind of support to feel I was keeping her safe and not provoking the wrong kind of behavior from her. Ironically, the search for a trainer led me to the group I had seen dropping by daily a year ago. It has been a perfect fit for both Bow and me. Not only is there a lot of praise for progress for Bow, but also for me. On days when I feel frustrated that we are not enough progress with loose leash walking, it is heartening to have a trainer who can point out that even the smallest positive is a step in the right direction.

Six months into our training, I have come to recognize and embrace that progress comes very slowly and sometimes an important break through comes out of nowhere. I am already celebrating this as the summer we mastered “leave it” and have been able to use just a voice command without a treat to lure Bow away from even the most tempting chicken bone on the sidewalk.


  1. I'm so very happy for you both. Bow looks wonderful. I knew you two were meant to be! Hugs!

  2. Thanks for leading her my way, Suzanne, and taking good care of her in her transition to her new home.

  3. Lovely post Gregg. Sounds like Bow is starting to love the big city. Thank you for the rescue and the story :)

    Dawn, Katie, and Tyler

  4. Wonderful! She's beautiful.

  5. Sounds like a perfect match; good job, Suzanne! (And very nice writing, Gregg!)

  6. Gregg,
    It's sounds like Bow's finally realized she's home to stay. Keep an eye on her. She liked to test me from time to time to make sure I was paying attention. Tell her Teddy, he ex-playmate is fine and being just as challenging to his new owner. Hugs & Scratches Bow.