Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hooked on Basenjis

I first learned about basenjis when my boys were young and begging for a family dog. Our pair of Siamese cats was nearing their 18th year, and we had moved to a house with plenty of room for a dog and the timing seemed right. Somehow I found out about an intriguing breed of dog that didn’t bark, was hypoallergenic and was exactly the right size. Then I saw the film, “Good-bye My Lady,” and that did it.

So I talked to my vet, who told me about a breeder in Florida where we lived at that time. One morning I and my two boys set off across the state to a little place outside Ft. Lauderdale near the Everglades, and came back with a tiny 5 week old tricolor puppy that squawked and whimpered the whole way home. She was hungry, poor thing, and too young to leave her mother, but she was our first puppy and soon had wormed her way into our hearts.

Because she had been born on Halloween, my oldest son named her Baba Yaga after the Russian witch of storybook fame who had the magical power of morphing into an enchanted cottage that moved through the forest on a pair of large chicken legs. She also learned commands in three languages: Russian, German and English, delighted us with her yodels, her chortles and her crows and completely spoiled us for any other breed of dog.

But, alas, we had never been told that even on a quiet street with only local traffic, Basenjis must never be given the freedom of other canine breeds, and Baba did not make it much past her first birthday. When we found her little body beside the street one summer morning, our home turned instantly into a house of mourning. That was a bitter lesson well learned. We had a few gifted escape artists among the colorful basenji personalities after Baba Yaga, but no one ever again came to such a tragic end.

Baba was followed by Shane and Jodie, two purebred basenjis that belonged to the friend of a neighbor. While we were still mourning the loss of our beautiful Baba, a neighbor told us that she was being besieged by frantic calls from across the country by the owner of two purebred basenjis whom she had foolishly left in the care of a young nephew. This woman was about to leave the country and had heard things were not working out—that her dogs were tied up under a rusty old semi with the Florida hurricane season rapidly approaching. Could she find a trustworthy person to rescue her dogs?

So we drove down to Sarasota County to find two of the filthiest dogs I’ve ever seen tied up as described. Shane was chewing on a rusty pipe wrench and Jodie was so obese she could barely waddle. A diet of leftover mashed potatoes and assorted scraps is not conducive to good basenji health. However, after a good worming, a vet-prescribed diet and lots of loving care, before summer ended, Jodie looked like the former show dog I’d heard she had been and Shane’s coat was a gorgeous red. However, Shane’s health had been so damaged by a few weeks of serious neglect and an infestation of heart worms that he died in a few weeks.

If you have never been witness to a grief-stricken dog after the death of a canine companion, you may think it a small matter. But I have witnessed two female basenjis mourning the death of a companion and it is certainly not any easy experience for an animal lover. Both Jodie, and later Kiki, grieved as deeply as any human, by refusing food, showing obvious depression, and wearing a heart--breaking constant searching look for the missing friend. I thought maybe Jodie might grieve herself to death while years later little Kiki did actually die only one month after Sam - but there is much more to that story.

Kiki joined Sam in doggie heaven one month after I moved from Florida to Ohio. I had expected she and Sam would be around for several more years, but life doesn’t always work as planned. After three weeks of living completely alone and hating it, I found BRAT on the Internet and applied to adopt Ishmah.

Ishmah was described as an alpha female with an exotic but traumatic history. It was best that she be an only dog as she’d had issues with canines and at least one human. But I was also told she had an amazing basenji repertoire of sounds, that she could literally sing as well as carry on an extended conversation and as I was impressed by her exotic background and was experienced with alphas, I was delighted when I was chosen to adopt her.

I learned to love that snarky little redhead, and after a year of getting to know her I decided she just might be open to the addition of a friendly male basenji to the household. That’s when I heard about Rufus, who had not yet been listed with BRAT rescue. He was two years old, had not been socialized, and was housebroken only to papers. Rufus, I was told, along with several other young basenjis, had been living in cages in a trailer in Tennessee. His owner raised show dogs and gave no explanation for giving up twenty purebred brindled basenjis, asking only that they be placed in good homes.

I confined Ishmah to the house the day Rufus arrived--brought right up to the door by a BRAT volunteer with six more, some to be driven as far north as Michigan. I had suggested the dogs use my yard as a rest stop, so all the little guys stretched their legs and then Rufus was left with me while Ishmah waited inside.

Ishmah was less than impressed upon eyeballing scrawny little Rufus, and showed her disdain with an unladylike snort and a quick swat at the poor little guy. This took him by surprise, but after tipping back on his skinny little haunches, he batted his eyes, scrambled to his feet and followed Ishmah as she walked regally from the room. From then on he was Ishmah’s devoted little slave.

The next three days Rufus was either curled up in my lap or trotting right on Ishmah’s heels. When Ishmah went out the doggie door, Rufus sat there and whimpered until I pushed him through. He got the hang of that quickly enough. Without a single accident Rufus was quickly completely housebroken, and I never had to lift a finger. When the temperature dropped and I closed the door to the sunroom, Ishmah showed him how to jingle the bell to get my attention when he wanted to go out. Ishmah did all the work. The day I found them curled up together in Ishmah’s doggie bed, I knew this was a match made in heaven.

But Ishmah was already getting old when I adopted her and the stress she had experienced before she was submitted to BRAT may have added to her deterioration. Also, I learned from her former owner that she was actually a couple of years older than BRAT had thought. With Ishmah’s demise following so closely on Sam’s and Kiki’s, I had lost three beloved companion dogs in little more than three years.

A recent email from Mr. Swan solved for me the mystery of Rufus’ submission to BRAT.
I was saddened to learn that Rufus and all those other young brindles turned over to BRAT were orphaned, not because they weren’t wanted, but because their owner had suffered severe financial losses. She had lost her home and wanted only to be sure her dogs found good homes. I only wish I could tell her how much joy Rufus has brought into my life. He is the only one of my basenjis that has never been food-oriented. He has never even been interested in snacks aside from an occasional slice of cheese. He leaves dog biscuits untouched, but will chew on Greenies, one small greenie lasting for two to three days. His weight is perfect, he is non-destructive aside from the usual paper fetish, and is not interested in making a mad dash for the door when the doorbell rings. He just scrunches down at my feet to make it easy for me to pick him up. He is gentle, loves to cuddle, can be touched all over, greets my guests with great enthusiasm and can be left completely free in the house on those occasions when I am gone. He is, in a word, perfect!

Rufus misses Ishmah and so do I. I have submitted an application to BRAT for a little sister as a playmate for Rufus. I might add that I cannot praise all the good BRAT volunteers enough. They do God’s work and they do it well.

Joanna Garrett


  1. Great great many needing homes right now I am sure you will find just the right one.

  2. A great story and a reminder that no matter how sad the loss of one beloved pet can be, there are so many other great orphans out there in need of a loving home.