Bringing Up Babies ... And Basenjis !

By Karla A. Schreiber, J.D.  (copyright 2004) 

Integrating an infant into a household that includes Basenjis – Basenjis that have been the "be-all and end-all of their owner's lives" until the arrival of the two-legged alien invader -- is a tricky situation at best.  And just when you think you have everything under control, POOF!  Your infant turns into a TODDLER -- and a whole new war must be waged.  Almost inevitably, things do not go smoothly, and many parents find themselves at that SPECIAL place called “Wit's End.” As a newly divorced parent of a 2.5 year old son, setting up housekeeping with three Basenjis (including one very rambunctious puppy), I visited Wit's End on many occasions.  However, I managed to return each time with strengthened resolve to learn from my mistakes and adjust my game plan to promote some semblance of household harmony. 

Household harmony is what this article is all about:  Helping babies, toddlers, adults and Basenjis coexist without doing bodily harm to one another, and helping parents stay sane throughout much (if not all - we don't offer miracles!) of the process.   I’ll address some practical ways that new Basenji-owning parents can integrate a human member into their existing "pack" – while hopefully retaining their mental stability, sense of humor, AND their Basenjis! 

See The Big Picture (from your Basenji’s Perspective) … 

Most breeders are all too familiar with the following tale: 

Young couple acquires Basenji puppy.  Young couple LOVES Basenji puppy.  Puppy is indulged and spoiled and doted on… But THEN comes the day of reckoning – the young couple comes home with a BABY…. And life for their beloved Basenji changes dramatically, in the wink of an eye.  No more is the Basenji the object of their unflagging affection and attention.  No more is the Basenji allowed into every nook and cranny of the household.  And no longer is the Basenji in the same “spot” in the household hierarchy!   

This tale is self-fulfilling prophecy. The Basenji is displaced.  The Basenji acts out.  The Basenji’s breeder gets THE CALL: “We can’t cope with our new baby and this Basenji, we need to send him back to you!”   

Most of the problems in the above scenario are not the result of the new infant in the household, and they are not the result of the BASENJI in the household.  They are a direct result of the behaviors and omissions of the human adults in the household.   It is possible in most if not all cases for babies and Basenjis to co-exist happily in the same household.  If you want to achieve this goal, there is only one way to do it…. The adults in the family must WANT to make things work, and must put in the time and effort to help ensure a positive outcome.  Be forewarned.  You can’t achieve this goal if unrealistic concerns, peer or family pressure, or just plain laziness result in your Basenji being relegated to second-class-citizen status as a result of a new human arrival. 

Here are some ways to work toward achieving harmony in your household – starting with the weeks, months and years BEFORE your new human addition makes an appearance…. 

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning…  

Helping your Basenji to be tolerant of  (or even affirmatively enjoy) children begins at the moment your Basenji puppy is born.  SOCIALIZATION is critical.  If you ever plan to add children to your household (or even if you don’t – what if your Basenji must be rehomed someday?) you must start with a well-socialized puppy from the outset.  Some important tips to remember are: 

·         Purchase your puppy from a responsible individual who breeds for exemplary temperaments, understands the critical importance of early socialization, and has a good track record for helping new Basenji owners with their puppies.  Don’t be afraid to ask for references from breeders to confirm that they provide good follow-up support to their puppy buyers.     

·         Continuously expose your Basenji to new people, places, and experiences.  Make sure he meets, and has positive experiences, with infants and children from the very beginning.  If you don’t routinely socialize with parents of infants or younger children, FIND SOME.   Affirmatively seek out ways to expose your Basenji to infants, toddlers, children, and adults of all ages.  The more tolerant, flexible and accepting your Basenji becomes, the better suited he or she will be to cope with the household upheaval that accompanies a new baby. 

·         Make sure that the socialization experiences are positive.  If you know that your sister’s children are not dog savvy don’t choose those children to help socialize your puppy.  Seek out children raised with pets in the household.   Carefully supervise all interactions to ensure that the infant/toddler/child AND the Basenji come away feeling good about the encounter.  Keep the visits brief, especially at first, so that no one overstays their welcome.  

One for All and All for One:  The Power of Inclusion!  

Bringing home a new infant is nerve-wracking, even if this isn’t your first safari through the jungle of parenthood.  There’s a tendency for first-time parents to let the pressure of being responsible for an infant (plus pressure from peers and family) convince them to exclude their Basenji from everyday household activities.  THIS IS A CRITICAL MISTAKE.  Unless there is a very good reason, please don’t preclude your Basenji from interacting with your infant.   Here are some suggestions: 

·         Think “Basenji friendly” when you set up your nursery.  Design the room so that the canine members of the household can spend quality time in the nursery – because YOU will certainly be spending a lot of time there!  Select a changing table with closed drawers (rather than open shelves – which are far more likely to be pilfered by curious Basenjis!).  Use baskets or netting attached to the walls to keep toys up and way from Basenji jaws.  Pick out a diaper pail with an industrial strength, LOCKING lid (grin!).  Decide where you will keep items that you’ll use each day (wash clothes, diapers, etc.) so that your Basenji doesn’t make them his own!  Avoid crib bedding that is just TOO tempting (anything that sticks out of the crib – like a crib skirt – is just asking for trouble).   Include a comfy dog bed (if your Basenji doesn’t devour them) in the nursery so that your Basenji can curl up and nap if they feel like it! 

·         Let your Basenji satisfy its curiosity. What is off-limits to the average Basenji quickly becomes the one thing the Basenji craves most.   If you make the new infant “off limits” your Basenji will probably become even more curious about the infant, and everything related to the infant.  The best way to nip this problem in the bud is to allow your Basenji to see, touch, TASTE (yes, taste) and get to know the infant.  With your close supervision let your Basenji investigate the newcomer on his/her own terms.  Start using the word “gentle” immediately -- and don’t forget to PRAISE your Basenji for gentle interactions with the baby.   

Real Life Example:  I mortified my mother AND my then-mother-in-law by bringing my son home from the hospital, and plopping his car seat carrier down onto the floor of our townhouse.  Of course, my two Basenjis HAD to see this creature – sniff, sniff, sniff… Lick, lick, lick… But after just a few minutes of investigating, they were more interested in my son’s DIAPER BAG (and in me, since I’d been gone for a few days!) than they were in him.  This set the tone for their relationship with him. No stress.  No tension.  They were free to investigate the baby and satisfy their curiosity. 

·         An involved Basenji is a happy Basenji….Is there a good reason to exclude your Basenji from ANY activity you engage in with your infant?  I can’t think of very many.  My two Basenjis quickly learned that bath time for my son was particularly fun!  As he grew old enough to sit up he rejoiced in splashing them, and watching them “wash” the water off their faces.  He giggled to his heart’s content when they’d LEAN over the tub edge and take a couple of laps of (non-soapy!) water… They even helped to dry him off on occasion.  Feeding time for my son as an infant was “cuddle time” for the Basenjis… One would curl up on my left side, the other on my right.  Let me tell you, that was cozy!  Taking the baby out in the stroller?  Take the Basenji too!  It is possible to push a stroller AND hold a leash (I held two and still managed not to let my son’s stroller roll into traffic!)… 

Your Basenji and the Microbe-Boogey Man 

Let’s face it – some of us have “germ phobias.”  Some of us do not KNOW we have “germ phobias” until we bring home a precious bundle of human joy, and come to the shocking realization that we’re solely responsible for the survival of this little life!  I cannot tell you where to draw the line.  There are many variables that go into the equation – including your infant’s over-all health and the limits of your own tolerance.  If you are blessed with a healthy child, I can only tell you what I did myself.  I allowed my dogs continuous, supervised access to my son.   They licked his HANDS and then he occasionally stuck them into his mouth before I could wash them.  As he grew older, I’m sure one of my Basenjis probably “tasted” his pacifier – and he replaced it in his mouth before I had a chance to rinse it off.  He didn’t get sick.  The dogs didn’t get sick.  I learned to relax, and all was well with the world.  If you are worried about your dog passing “something” to your child, please consult your child’s pediatrician (about the overall state of your child’s health), your vet (about the overall state of your dog’s health), and other Basenji fanciers who have raised children with their dogs.  Try to use factual information, and practical experience to determine if your concerns are rationale or reactionary.  While you will have to find your own comfort level, give your Basenji as MUCH supervised access to your new human family member as you possibly can.  Your baby and your Basenji cannot build a relationship when one of them is always on the “other side” of a baby gate!   

Maintain Your Sense of Humor – At All Costs! 

Nothing will test your sense of humor MORE than life with a human baby/toddler and a Basenji… There will be moments of supreme irritation, frustration, and possibly even outright anger.  Just remember that you’re the adult --the pack leader.  It is your responsibility to maintain control and some level of decorum.  If that doesn’t happen, look to yourself first – and to your infant/toddler and your Basenji SECOND.  Basenjis need to learn good manners around young children.  We can teach our Basenjis not to jump, pull, tug, or nip – and to respect our authority in the household.  Infants and toddlers need to learn to be gentle, and to read the body language of the dogs they interact with (become aware of changes in the dog’s posture, vocalizations, or eye contact that might indicate the dog has “had enough”).  We can help our children learn to read canine body language by pointing out clear examples of how our dogs’ “talk” to us without using words. 

Real Life Example:  When my son was four, we moved from our small rental house into a more spacious two level home.  I was working in the kitchen, and my son called out that he needed to go upstairs to get something from his room.  A few minutes later, he came into the kitchen and told me that Max (our eldest Basenji) wouldn’t “let him go up the stairs…” More specifically, he told me that Max was giving him “the evil eye” (I have NO idea where he heard that expression!).  I investigated, and found Max sprawled across one of the stairs.  As we approached, he DID indeed give my son “the evil eye!”  “Do not try to step over me, little one, or you will pay!”  I shooed Max off the step, and congratulated my son on “hearing what Max was saying” and coming to get me for assistance.  Max spoke.  My son listened.  Communication is a wonderful thing! 

In Conclusion…. 

I believe that my son benefited greatly from growing up in the same household with our Basenjis.   When I see him fall asleep on the sofa (taking up nearly the entire couch at age eleven!) with several Basenjis as his blanket, I know that he understands the beneficial roll these unique “visitors from another species” play in our lives.  But his relationship with our Basenjis didn’t “just happen.”  It is the result of considerable time and effort – by me, my son, and our Basenjis, too.   

If this kind of relationship is important to you, and if you consider your Basenji(s) to be part of your family, the effort you expend to make things work will be repaid in spades.  Your children will learn patience, gentleness, consideration, perceptiveness and fairness, and will find a lifetime’s worth of comfort in the unconditional love that a Basenji (or any pet) can provide.  But there is no gain without pain.  As the adult “pack leader” you’ll need a judicious dose of patience, gentleness, consideration, perceptiveness and fairness yourself.  And you will need the kind of dedication that comes from understanding and appreciating what your Basenjis give BACK to you -- and your entire family.