Some Suggestions for Raising a Well-Adjusted Basenji
By Tammy Rahn

"Recently on the Internet b-list a posting about a five month old basenji caught my attention. This youngster was already exhibiting signs of dominance and the owners were very concerned, and felt the dog hated them although they had "really been good to him since day one." Happily they were looking for advice and this is what I supplied from our own experiences.

First off your dog doesn't hate you.  It's important to try and understand his behavior from a dog's point-of-view, because after a11 no matter how we pamper our basenjis, they are still dogs. The thing I discovered is that a dog's world is quite primitive and working with them is often counter-intuitive. While you may be behaving towards your dog in what you believe is a friendly, affectionate, nurturing way, your dog can wind up interpreting your actions as signs of weakness and submission. There are so many subtle ways in which human behavior maps differently to dog behavior that it is really easy to unintentionally set up the wrong pack environment.

I don't remember how old Kiazi (our male basenji) was when he started growling at us - maybe somewhere between 5 and 7 months. He was sleeping at night with us and the growling first manifested itself when my husband would try and get in the bed. Then it grew so he would growl at us ii we approached him in his doggie bed. Then if we approached him wherever he was sleeping. Then if we wanted to do something he didn't want - like take a bath. The growls got more and more vicious-sounding, with barred teeth, and we were certain that biting was just around the corner. We too had read all about the alpha roll and every time he growled at us, we'd roll him on his back, stare him down, even growl back at him sometimes - all attempts to let him know we were in charge and he was out of bounds with his behavior. It only made things worse with Kiazi. Finally, we consulted with an animal behaviorist and this is what she told us:

   * Some dogs are naturally/genetically predisposed for dominance. Some dogs are naturally aggressive. Sometimes you get a dog that has both qualities, so they assert their dominance aggressively- with growling and biting. She concluded that our dog was a dominant aggressive and it sounds like your boy may be as well.

   * While aggression can be a naturally occurring trait it can also be learned. The alpha maneuver is dangerous for the average lay person to use because it can be easily, though unintentionally, overused and abused. Most of us don't recognize the often amazingly subtle signs of submission once we've rolled a dog, so we do it too long, at which point it ceases to be useful and can become damaging. Furthermore, if you try to match your dog's aggressiveness with aggressiveness of your own and one day your dog decides to up the ante by biting you, you've lost the bet. You won't be able to compete with him at that level and you'll never get your position back with him. We were advised to stop doing the alpha roll, which we have, and I don't regret it at all. During the training process (which I'll outline below), eliminate all potentially aggressive situations with your dog. This is for a few reasons. One, you want to avoid having him raise the stakes to the place where you can't compete.  And two, you want to take his ammunition away, so he never perceives that there are areas where he can push his weight around. So, if he growls at you when you approach him in his bed, don't; instead, call him to you when you want to touch/interact with him. If he growls when you tell him to get off of something, don't let him up there to begin with. I think you get the picture here. Also, it you do wind up in a situation where he growls, ignore it completely, like it never happened. This steals his thunder, so to speak. (Unfortunately, we were also told that' if Kiazi ever bit us, we needed to completely ignore it too, suppressing all reactions, so the dog never learns how powerful a tool biting can be.)

Take the following types of steps to re-assert your dominance over him:

How you feed your dog is really important, because in wolf packs, it is the alpha that is primarily responsible for initiating the hunt and the alpha that gets to eat first. We were told to do the following:

   * If possible, eat before you feed your dog. Make him stay in his crate (preferably where he can see you) while you eat, or put him on a down-stay at the table while you eat.

   * BUT, before you plunk the bowl down in front of him, make him perform a trick - like sit, or rollover, or go to the crate. (Obviously you can only do this during puppy training, so you are probably covered). He must execute the command perfectly or he doesn't get the food. The idea being that you are helping him make the connection that he must "earn" his food from you-it is not his dog-given right. Our behaviorist indicated that if he didn't do the trick correctly, he wasn't to be fed, period, until next mealtime at which point you use the same process. She indicated that a really stubborn dominant might wind up going a few days before he/she got food. She assured us that it wouldn't be harmful for a dog to go a few days with out food - which's often how it is in the wild. II personally couldn't quite reconcile myself to this notion, so we implemented a three-strikes-you're-out policy. Kiaze gets three tries to do his command right- with a five-minute break between each attempt.  If he doesn't do it right on the third try, THEN he misses his meal completely.  He's only missed a meal a handful of times. He has always been "perfect" the first try of the next meal! They're smart dogs - they catch on to the program quickly.

A corollary: the same thing applies to treats, be it dog cookies, pigs ears, rawhides, stuffed toys. Whatever you give them, they must earn from you because you are alpha supreme and what you say goes! Our behaviorist said the ultimate goal was for your dog to be thinking: "what special thing can I do for you so I can have that great thing?"  It really works because sometimes Kiazi will see us pull out a treat and he'll start going through his entire retinue of tricks without a word from us. Of course, he doesn't get the treat until he does something we "ask" him to do...

   * Don't let your dog sleep in the same bed with you. He's smart enough to know that it's the primo spot and it he gets to be up there he thinks he's primo too. This one really depressed me because I liked sleeping with him. But it's really helped...sometimes we let him join us in the early morning as a treat...but at least now he knows that being in the bed is something special.

   * If you play tug-of-war games with your dog, make sure that you always win - i.e., in the end, you are the one thatt winds up keeping the toy. Also:

   1. You should be the one that ends the play sessions.
   2. Randomly go and take his toys away then give them back ten or fifteen minutes later. (Of course, if he's showing signs of territorial-ism about his toys, you'll want to be careful about taking his toys or treats away. Make him leave the toy/treat before you approach it, so he can't be in a position to strike out at you).

   * Whenever you leave the house with your dog, you should be the one that exits the door first. In the wild, the alpha wolf leads the hunt while the submissives remain in the back. If your dog leaves the door first he is in the alpha position.  We put Kiazi on a sit-stay, which he must hold while the door is opened. We then step out onto the front porch, then call Kiazi to join us. We then make Kiazi heel down the sidewalk to the street. I'm betting your boy doesn't have the heel down yet, but he can hopefully hold a sit-stay long enough for you to get out of the house. If the dog messes up on any of this, he should be taken directly back to the house and his outing postponed for a few minutes.

   * Did you know that when a dog comes over and puts its head on your knee and looks up at you with those sweet eyes inviting you to 'please, please, please scratch my ears' -the dog is being very dominant? I didn't.  Apparently, in packs, the alpha "demands" his grooming from the subordinates - then, when he's had enough, he gets a ccerrtain glazed look to his eyes, which the subordinates understand immediately means they are to take their leave. If a subordinate misses the look and sticks around too long, he may well get bitten!  Not understanding these signals when petting a dog - a certain glaze to the eye, an increase in pressure at the dog's jaw on your knee -is a big cause of dog bites, apparently. To the human, it seems like a bizarre attack out of the blue. To the dog, it was a silly subordinate not understanding his place. Unfortunately, a very powerful way for you to assert your dominance in the pack is through limiting the attention you give your dog. I found this very difficult - in fact, sometimes it broke my heart because the little Basenji face can look so hurt and vulnerable sometimes BUT, it was amazingly effective:

   1. When you come home, ignore the dog for awhile. You aren't trying to be mean or cruel just indifferent, like the dog doesn't really exist. Eventually, after a few minutes or so, greet the dog but without too much enthusiasm or effusiveness. You'll probably notice that your boy starts following you around eagerly -I think it must be the nature of all mammals to want what they can't seem to have!

   2. When you are sitting around and your dog comes over to you for attention, ignore it or give a quick pat then send it on its way, like you simply can't be bothered right now.

   3. You'll probably want to avoid cuddling with your dog for the time being. You can phase this behavior back in, definitely, but later, once you've re-established your dominance.

That's all I can think of right now. You'll probably need to follow these steps for a good 6 to 8 weeks at which point, you'll hopefully be seeing solid signs of improvement and then you can start to return to a more normal relationship. The first week may be very intense - you may see an increase in your dog's aggressive behavior.  If so, it's a good indicator that you are on the right track and that he's throwing a temper tantrum because you've just pulled the rug out from under him. After awhile, you can gradually return to a more normal relationship - but you'll always want to keep the basic nuance of "I am a God to you, dog, and can do whatever capricious thing I want to you" because in their primitive little heads, this is what they expect from their leaders. The first day after we implemented these behavior changes with Kiazi, he tried to bite me when I made him get off the bed he had come to view as his own. It was the first and (knock on wood) only time he's actually tried to bite. He was visibly confused and furious at the changes we threw at him. It was hard and sometimes I had to harden my heart against all my instincts to be kind and cuddly with him but in the end, these steps have really paid off for us. Kiazi isn't perfect - if he's really in a grumpy mood, he will still growl if we approach him in his bed - but the growls are a lot less assertive when they do happen. And most of the time, we don't hear it anymore.  We still practice a lot of the above steps on a daily basis - with regards to the food, the toys, and the walk. I think, given Kiazi's nature, it is in everyone's best interests that we impress upon him daily his place in the pack's hierarchy (the only one he gets to be above is the cat).

I do recommend that you seek the advice of a professional animal behaviorist, I could be completely wrong about these steps being helpful for your problem. But, the similarity in your situation and ours was striking. Your situation with your dog is serious and it could get tragic if not resolved. But, your puppy is still very young and if you take the right approach, your chances for correcting his aggressive behavior are great. Best of luck -and feel free to contact me if you want anny other information."