Monday, June 23, 2014

Learning to Live with your Basenji: Cody and Maxwell's Story

This is for new adopters who ask themselves “what the heck have I done!?”

A year before adopting my Cody from BRAT I had researched Basenjis on the internet, pored over Basenji books, and looked at everything I could find related to the breed. I was informed. I was ready. I was a Basenji expert. In fact, the night before the BRAT home visit, my husband and I quizzed each other about Basenjis so we could show the home inspector that we were informed! We knew everything there was to know about the regal history of the breed. We were going to be perfect Basenji parents! We were ready! Ta da!

And then we brought home Cody.


When we tried to move him off the couch or bed, Cody snarled and snarked. He bared his teeth and tried to bite us. I was, frankly, terrified of him. This was a new dog experience for us. Prior to adopting Cody we had mixed-breeds from the animal shelter. They were biddable and sweet and obedient. They came when called and looked stricken when caught with their noses in the garbage can.

Cody was something entirely different. I can remember walking him with my friend that first month, in tears, telling her that we had made a terrible mistake. I wanted to give him back to his amazing foster mom Lindy Ireland but felt that if I did I was admitting failure because I had committed to taking care of this heinous creature and to abandon him was unthinkable. But we had made a horrible mistake. We had somehow adopted the devil’s spawn and I feared I could never love or trust him. We had failed.

But then, with time and determination and gentle guidance from his foster parents, the BRAT community, and our vet, everything began to change. We worked with him. He had to sit before getting a treat. Actually, he had to sit for every thing he desired – pets, cuddles, time on the couch, etc. And little by little he became less scary. We began to see that his aggression was more show than action. And the more we worked with him – nightly training involving ups! (jumping onto a chair) and downs! (jumping off) and sits and stays and lots of treats - the more he calmed down and the less aggressive he was.

Today, he is my joy. When he snuggles next to me under the covers, I feel blessed beyond reason. And if he snarks when asked to leave a coveted spot, I know he’s all bluff and I simply tell him to knock it off. I learned to meet him halfway and he stopped being frightening. He became comical. He still makes a sound like something from the depths of hell when I move him from a coveted spot, but now instead of being afraid, I just laugh.

And then… we adopted Maxwell Benjamin from BRAT, through, once again, Lindy Ireland and Tom Nucaro.


Maxwell makes Cody look like the poster Basenji for good behavior. Every night when I tell my pack that it’s time to go out for the last time, Maxwell growls and snarks, raises his hackles, and tries to attack his brothers as if they have somehow interrupted his comfortable peace in his cozy cave. He is defensive and quick to react. He has bitten both my husband and myself when startled. We think he just may have had a harder road to hoe before coming to us and he can’t shake that feeling that the world is a scary and threatening place. But having had Cody first, we learned to work around Maxwell’s issues. If not for Cody, and the way we learned to understand each other, I would not have had the patience and knowledge (despite all that reading I had done) for such a needy soul. But now I do. And Maxwell has become a wonderful companion. We love his weird quirks and I think he knows he is safe. And home. Finally.

Basenjis are strange and difficult dogs. And whatever you read about them will never prepare you for what that beautiful, precious, and strange little individual will bring to your life. So, give it a month before you decide if you’re a good match. Allow them to relax enough in their new home to let their personalities shine. This has been a hard lesson for me to learn (and I failed often), but I finally get it. You need time to evaluate this new presence in your life.

Cody & Max

Lean on the folks in the BRAT community (they have all been there) and be prepared to spend many hours training and working with this wonderful/exasperating/amusing critter until you can arrive at an understanding. Many Basenji owners joke about how they bend themselves into pretzels to accommodate the idiosyncrasies of the breed. To live with a Basenji involves compromise and a level of acceptance that I didn’t think I could muster. But I did. And my husband did. And like many Basenji guardians before us, we shake our heads in amazement at what we never thought we would tolerate from a pet. But we do. They hover over us when we eat supper (and sometimes snag a morsel off a plate). They pretty much dictate all the house rules. They splay themselves across guest’s laps, and we have long since stopped apologizing. And honestly, I think we’re better people for it because we have unwittingly accepted them on their terms. And looking back, I am amazed, because it all somehow feels just as it should be.

~Julie Mahoney


  1. We’ll never know what their lives were like before BRAT or what made them so fearful and distrusting. We’ll never know what made defensive aggression their first response. Bless you for not giving up on them, and thank heavens they were finally able to see they are safe with you. It seems all of your lives are now richer and happier. This is the very best kind of happy ending story.

  2. I have always admired those who foster and rescue because they have the unenviable task of trying to bring stability to an abused and neglected dog. But it also takes a lot of courage to adopt such dog, knowing that the dog's "baggage" is permanently yours, to work with, to correct, and in some cases to compromise and accept. But always while showing love.