Proportionally Speaking: The Square, Agile African Basenji

Proportionally Speaking: The Square Basenji

Proportionally Speaking: The Square BasenjiProportionally Speaking: The Square Basenji | Having found myself, accidentally, the President of the Basenji Club of America back in 1989, I was dropped into the middle of a controversy about the revision of our Standard. I did my best to resolve that contretemps by breaking the Standard down into small, specific phrases, then putting the entire thing out to the General Membership to be voted on individually. Any phrase passing was sent on, any that did not pass was revised, incorporating the input of the membership and re-voted on—and revised—until it did pass. This was quite an arduous undertaking, but the final version passed the vote of the General Membership with 97 percent voting in agreement.

I hope that I (and, by extension, the other members who also should have noticed) can be forgiven, then, for not realizing that we had omitted the word “square” from the paragraph on proportions. We naively assumed that by specifying 17″ x 17″ for a dog and 16″ x 16″ for a bitch, judges would understand that the square proportion was a given.

Proportionally Speaking: The Square Basenji
Whelped 1954, English Import, American Champion

In the intervening thirty years, I have watched, unhappily, as my small, square, agile jungle dog has morphed into a long-bodied, rectangular, over-angulated Generic American Show Dog that flies around the ring on a tight lead in front of their handlers. This is not typical of the correct Basenji nor is it in keeping with its Standard and its original native function.

The 1954 (the second) approved Basenji Standard specified that the Basenji was “short-backed” (General Appearance), short-bodied or “body should be short” (Body), and “short-coupled” (Body). When we reformatted it in 1990 at AKC’s request, we allowed for the short back and the short coupling, but it was apparently decided to omit entirely that the body itself should be short. The word “balanced” was substituted, instead, in the paragraph on the Body, and the phrase “short body” was not included anywhere else. This eventually allowed, unknowingly, for a change in construction. As newer breeders assume that the 1990 is the “better” version of the Standard, they discard the knowledge to be gained from the two previous versions. Now, rather than our dogs being “square appearing high on leg,” we have many that are often only square by virtue of being as tall as they are long.

square basenji

In a sincere attempt to “fix” the ancient Basenji, many who are new (not just to Basenjis, but to dogs in general) have chosen to change the construction to match the generic dog depicted in so many generalized studies on “the movement of the dog.” Sadly, in so doing, they have lost the essence of the original Basenji. The 1942 Standard, the only approved version written with some input from those breed founders who had seen Basenjis in the jungles of the Congo back in the 1920s and ‘30s, reads: “The general appearance is one of springy poise and alertness, greatly resembling an antelope.” I think the desire was for the Basenji to stand “up on his legs.” (See antelope below.)

The Basenji was known a hundred years ago as, “M’Bwa M’Kube M’Bwawamwitu” or the “Jumping Up and Down Dog.” This was because their square, agile, moderately angulated construction allowed them to jump straight up in the deep grass and “hover” to sight the game. They could also jump straight up in the air and turn, to run in the reverse direction should this be necessary to make an escape! Agility (due to the breed’s balanced, square, short-bodied, short-backed and short-coupled construction) is far more typical of the correct Basenji than is the rectangular dog, strung up and being raced around the ring.

Proportionally Speaking: The Square Basenji
Whelped 2017, American Champion

The Basenji should always be moved on a loose lead and judged as they come to a natural stop. There should be that air of poise and quizzical alertness as they check out their surroundings. The rear should be in balance with the front, just enough under the dog to enable an
agile escape.

Olivia Burn writes in one of her columns about seeing the dogs work in the 1920s, and that there were “coy” (cross-breeds) among them as far back as then. Yes, there have been those intrepid travelers trekking into Africa in search of new stock. It is the rare new import—sixty to a hundred years later—that is truly of a Basenji type as the English were attempting to establish the breed in the ‘30s. However, the Basenji is so prepotent that it has not been difficult to incorporate for health and retain correct type.


Proportionally Speaking: The Square Basenji
Whelped 1983, American Champion, National Specialty WB, BOS, 2 JOAM & BBHR

It is not known by many, but the 1942 Standard was not actually the first. There was a Standard written up by the original members of the Basenji Club of Great Britain in 1939, when they all first got together to establish the Basenji Club of Great Britain. Because of World War II, it was never submitted to the Kennel Club for approval. After the war, the early founders of the breed were scattered and no longer actually working with the club. The major influence on the 1942 Standard was Veronica Tudor-Williams, who had been mentored by those
early founders.

So, that first approved Basenji Standard was already once removed from the breed founders. In my study, I have found that every time the Standard underwent a revision, words—and even whole phrases—were omitted and much extra verbiage was added. The 1939 General Appearance paragraph read: “Smart and alert, with poise and stance rather resembling an antelope, and gait very like that of a thoroughbred horse.” Succinct, but this hits all the necessary points. Although the subsequent Standards used more words, I don’t think they were actually more descriptive.

Proportionally Speaking: The Square Basenji
African Import, Registered as Foundation Stock, 2009

For me, but I can never forget Olivia Burn’s vivid description written in May 1939:

“…They have to hunt through long grass, forest, undergrowth and often sand, so a short, strong back with good propelling power of quarters is important for the work required of them. What is required is a reachy-necked, short-backed, tireless, active little dog,
really agile, alert, springy and quick, with a deep brisket. I have seen numbers of them at work during the past ten years and the best and most useful specimens all have the conformation described.”

I have never heard or read a more accurate description of the ideal Basenji; really bringing these little native dogs alive in your mind as they dart through the deep grass, jumping straight up to sight their quarry, then dropping down to drive it into the nets of their native Pygmy owners!

To reiterate, the proportions of the African Basenji should be truly square. Whether standing on a loose lead, standing up on his own feet in a line-up or as approached on an examination table, he should present an easily discerned, squarely constructed dog. His movement, while swift and tireless, is still a smoothly balanced, easy, and swinging stride. Moving or standing, the Basenji is the picture of “springy poise and alertness!”

Why all the yellow squares, you ask? Well, when judging the Basenji, if you cannot visualize a square as I have positioned it, the dog’s proportions are not correct. Thus, the entire construction is incorrect. Just my humble opinion. –SLB

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, incorporating her forty-six years of extensive study and experience, and do not necessarily represent those of the Basenji Club of America, Inc., its Officers, Board or Membership. —SLB

square basenji
Whelped 2016, Australian BIS Supreme Champion
square basenji
Whelped 2018, AKC Major-Pointed (Dark Moon’s Supernatural)
square basenji
These dogs show the level toplined, swift, balanced, and swinging stride of the square, agile Basenji.

square basenji


  • As JATO Basenjis since 1974, producing one litter per year until 1998, Mrs. Bridges has owned, bred and/or co-bred over fifty Champion Basenjis, most owner- and/or breeder-handled to their titles. These include six Top Producers, seven Specialty Winners, three National Specialty Winners (from her “last” Basenji litter, WB-BW at the 1999 BCOA National under Australian breeder-judge Lauris Hunt) and a Top Ten Group Winner. Her husband’s 12-year illness, resulting in his death in 2004, curtailed her dog activities for a time. She dove back in to judging and went ahead to attain AKC approval to judge fifteen Hounds and one Toy as well as all-breed Juniors. She has judged Basenji Specialties and supported entries across the US and in Australia and Finland, including the still-record entry of 467 at the 1997 Basenji Club of America National Specialty. She felt honored to judge her second Specialty in Australia, fifteen years after the first; 2003 and 2018. She served the Basenji Club of America, first as Ad Manager for five years, then as Editor of its quarterly Bulletin for over ten years. She was, concurrently, President for two terms, Secretary for one, and a member of the Board for another six between 1987 and 1995. Mrs. Bridges was a member of the Basenji Club of America’s JEC in the ‘90s, creating and presenting the “Interactive Critique” at many National Specialty Judges’ Seminars. She also compiled and authored much of the JEC’s educational material at that time. Following a “break” during her husband’s illness, she is again a member of the BCOA’s Judges’ Education Committee. Her artwork has been presented at past Specialties and National Specialties. She is currently working on a book about the original Basenji from the heart of the rain forest, and the need for breeders and judges to re-focus on that small, short-backed, balanced, and agile jungle dog.

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