The Basenji is an aboriginal African hunting dog that has lived in close association with man in the rainforests of Central Africa for thousands of years. Early English and European explorers described small tan, fawn or red and white or black and white, barkless, prick-eared, curly-tailed hunting dogs owned by native tribesmen in various parts of Central Africa. Later travelers brought back red and white, black, and black, tan and white dogs that fit this description. Sadly, many of the early imports died of distemper, including the pair that was exhibited as African Bush Dogs at Crufts in 1895. (The native dogs had no natural immunity to this dreaded disease and, when an experimental distemper vaccine was finally developed, later imports continued to perish from its aftereffects.) These dogs enchanted fanciers and came to be known as Basenjis, which, we are told, translates as “bush thing” or “wild thing.” When breed standards were written, they included the red and white, black and white, and black, tan and white (or tricolor)
Later importations included pure black and white Basenjis from Liberia and tiger-striped brindle Basenjis from the Sudan and the Congo, and these dogs have been incorporated into the breed’s modern gene pool. At one point, a recessive form of the black, tan and white color pattern was noted among the offspring of one of the most highly influential imports; these puppies were born pure black, but later developed mottled tan markings. Basenji fanciers were divided in their acceptance of the two (dominant and recessive) black colors and they argued heatedly as to which one was correct. The controversy ended in the 1970s with a Basenji Club of America ballot that spelled out in detail where the tan markings of a black, tan and white Basenji would be placed, thereby eliminating the recessive black Basenjis from competition. The ballot went down in defeat as the majority of BCOA members felt that the breeders and owners of this primitive hunting dog were in the best position to assess and evaluate their own breeding stock, placing an emphasis on temperament, structure, and breed type—and leaving room for color variations as seen in the native dogs. This is still the feeling of most breeders and we can generally “give” a little in the color department on an otherwise excellent dog. The Basenji standard has no disqualifications for color, and we like it that way.
COLOR AND MARKINGS IN THE MODERN SHOW RING
That being said, the AKC Basenji Standard is very clear that the desired colors are: “Chestnut red; pure black; tricolor (pure black and chestnut red); or brindle (black stripes on a background of chestnut red); all with white feet, chest and tail tip. White legs, blaze and collar optional. The amount of white should never predominate over primary color. Color and markings should be rich, clear and well-defined, with a distinct line of demarcation between the black and red of tricolors and the stripes of brindles.”
The chestnut red color most closely resembles the color of a chestnut horse and not the fruit of the chestnut tree, which would be closer to a dark mahogany. We love the vibrant orangey reds when we see them, which is not as often as we would like. We have a lot of paper bag reds, and tolerate them, but our goal is always a bright, shiny red.
Pure black is a glossy black with no tan hairs; there may be some grey undercoat at times or scattered white hairs, but these are normal. There is a seal variant, which is visible in some light; this color is not often seen and its genetics are unknown to this writer.
The tricolor (pure black and chestnut red) is open to more variation and we do see several different color patterns that fit this description. The normal tricolor is included here, as is the open faced tricolor, the saddle, and the recessive black. We should always bear in mind the standard’s stipulation that color and markings should be rich, clear, and well-defined, but we are really looking for the best overall dog—no matter its color. Again, as in the black and white, a grey undercoat may sometimes be present, usually around the neck.
The brindle (black stripes on a background of chestnut red) color pattern is also subject to a number of variations, as we do not specify the number or arrangement of stripes. We can see very plainly marked brindles with only a few stripes as well as dogs so heavily marked that the red background is barely visible. Again, the dog under the stripes is the most important factor in the greater scheme of things. Additionally, when the brindle color pattern was added to our standard after the arrival of some influential native African imports, we did not think to address the ramifications of superimposing this pattern on our tricolor dogs in our breeding programs. As it happens, the brindle stripes transfer neatly to the red portions of the coat to form a “brindle-pointed tri” or “trindle.” This color pattern is the natural result of breeding two approved colors together and is completely acceptable in the ring.
White feet, chests, and tail tips are ubiquitous, and almost always acceptable. If necessary, even a foot with one white toe will pass muster.
White legs, blaze, and collar are optional, but are frequently seen. There is no preference for a full white collar, but it is often seen on our top winners as it is flashy and catches the eye of the judges. In some cases, it also gives the illusion of a longer neck, so it may be helpful in the ring.
Our standard does have a warning that the amount of white should never predominate over the primary color. There is a very good reason for this and it goes back to our gene pool. “Congo,” the mostly white bitch pictured below, came to this country in the 1940s as a stowaway on a tramp steamer from West Africa. She is a part of our foundation stock. Whether from her influence or from that of later imports, the gene for excess white is there and we studiously breed away from it.
I would be happy to answer any questions about this aspect of our breed or any others, for that matter. I may be reached at email@example.com.