BRAT frequently receives emails to Brat-Help from owners seeking advice regarding difficult behaviors exhibited by their adult basenjis. Many times the behaviors have escalated to the point of the owner considering relinquishing their basenji to BRAT. With the advice of BRAT volunteers some problems can be resolved and the basenji remains with his family. Other times, when the behavior includes serious aggression, BRAT may be unable to accept the basenji even if the owner desires us to rehome him. The following exchange occurred recently.
Owner: We are considering giving up our full grown Basenji for adoption. Right now we are just looking for some guidance to research that possibility. Would you be able to help us garner the information needed to make the right decision? Thank you.
Me: What is your situation? Is he having behavior problems? Aggression? Health issues?
Owner: Thank you for the quick reply. My basenji has been growling, and even showing his teeth occasionally. Usually happens late at night when he is really comfortable and doesn’t want to move. Other times he has been caught in the trash and growled at us. He growls and snarls and is much worse when he has done something wrong and is being verbally reprimanded. It is becoming more frequent. We tell him to go to his crate and he will do it, but that is when he is at his worst.
We are a very busy family, so he spends too much time in his crate. We recently started our busiest time of the year, and it has worsened quite a lot. 90% of the time he is a good dog, but I just don’t trust him. I’m really worried about him biting my wife or daughter. He is lightning quick and has very sharp teeth. He’s only actually bitten me, and frankly, I understand why he did on the two occasions it’s happened. The trip I made to the emergency room two weeks ago was the catalyst to the adoption talk.
Me: I understand the complexity of his issues. BRAT is unable to rehome dogs who are truly aggressive. His aggression seems to be situational at this point and needs to be corrected so it does not become more out of control. I suggest you take the necessary measures to avoid confrontational situations with him. Basenjis seldom respond in a positive manner to negative correction or reprimands. You should use only positive correction and behavior modification. A certified dog behaviorist could help you if you are willing and able to hire one, or if you have time, a dog obedience class could help. If you do not change the manner in which you are correcting and handling him I fear he will be put to sleep if his behavior continues to escalate. You do not say how old he is or if he has any thyroid problems. Hypothyroidism is common in basenjis and many times can be the cause of aggressive behavior. Being hypothyroid makes the dog feel out of sorts, anxious and short tempered.
Here is some behavior advice based on my personal experiences. Being a primitive breed, basenjis are very independent thinkers and will take advantage of any opportunity they see to get what they want.
1. Put the trash behind closed doors. He should never have access to it. Shut bathroom doors and keep them shut.
2. If he does get in the trash and has something that can harm him, try to trade something of greater value that will not hurt him. If it is something harmless just let him have it. Accept that it is a human error to allow him in the trash.
3. Never, absolutely never, strike him. This will only make him feel defensive and escalate his aggression.
4. Do not punish him for growling. A growl is a warning. Punishment for growling will potentially cause him to quit telling you he is stressed or angry and cause him to bite without any warning.
5. When you want him to move from a comfortable spot do not give a negative command such as "get down". Instead give a positive command, "come here" and indicate where you want him to lay. It will be most effective if you offer him a reward for moving.
6. Do not use the crate as punishment if you want him to consider it his safe place and a pleasant place to be. If his behavior is such that you need to crate him to protect someone from getting bitten try to coax him into the crate with a reward. ( I know this might seem as though you are rewarding the bad behavior but if you can separate the aggressive incident with some sit, stay commands, then ask him to go to the crate for a reward he has done what you asked and earned the reward.)
Please don't hesitate to contact me again for clarification or if you have questions. BRAT would prefer in most situations of this type to enable the basenji to remain safely with a family who loves him rather than try to rehome. A basenji that is biting his family members is even more likely to bite a stranger. Most of our foster volunteers are ordinary people who love and understand the breed but we have no magic wands. Many of us have the scars of having been bitten. Any dog that bites while in foster care is usually euthanized.