My Basenji Drives Me CRAZY When…..

An Analysis of Possessive Aggression Behavior

By Karla A. Schreiber, J.D. (copyright 2002)

 The Problem Behavior:   My Basenji occasionally decides to aggressively protect a particular toy or contraband item -- what is the best way to handle this situation? 

What’s Going On in His Head?:  Basenjis have an instinct to possess and defend – as do many dogs.  This is a natural and useful tool for wild canines, but it's a trait that isn't socially acceptable for a companion animal.  Even though you may have worked with your Basenji from puppyhood (if you’ve had him that long) to prevent possessive aggression it can still rear its ugly head now and then.  The question becomes, do you go to the mat over this behavior and risk daring your Basenji to bite (assuming that the behavior is only occasional - persistent aggressive possession can indicate more serious problems) or do you choose to deescalate the situation and analyze how to prevent further incidents?  Most Basenji owners agree that when this behavior isn't frequent, the DEESCALATE & ANALYZE approach is best.  So what do you do when your Basenji is hiding behind the Lazy-Boy recliner with your son's favorite Batman pajama bottoms -- and refuses to yield? 

How To Cope:  Step one – If you have other dogs or young children in the same room as your possessive Basenji, remove the other dogs and children from the area at once.  Their presence will not contribute to a calm environment, and might even cause the situation to escalate.  Step two – Go to the kitchen, open the refrigerator, and take out the most delectable (from your Basenji’s standpoint) item you can find (for example, a good-sized piece of roasted meat, some deli item like cheese, etc.).  Approach your Basenji and the guarded object and be as relaxed as possible.  Say, “Oh, loooooook! Yummy!”  Make sure that your Basenji sees and smells the food.  Even take a bite of it yourself when you're sure that your Basenji is watching!  Once you have your Basenji’s attention, toss the treat to the far side of the room and tell your Basenjis to “get it!”  Nine times out of ten, the Basenji in question will leave the protected item and rush to grab the food.  Quickly nab the contraband and place it well out of reach.  Your Basenji will probably spend some time frantically searching for the item.  Ignore this behavior.  It is persists, try distracting your Basenji with happy talk, and another treat.  Step three -- Once your Basenji is calm and no longer searching for his lost prize let other pets and children return to the room.  Step four -- Take a few minutes to think about the events that lead up to the incident.  How did your Basenji obtain the contraband item -- is there a door that should have been shut, or a cabinet that should have been locked?  Garbage that should have been taken to an outdoor trash bin?   If the item was a toy, what is special about it?  Sometimes the answer is "nothing" -- but some Basenjis are more prone to aggressive possession if an object is 1) particularly furry; 2) makes an unusual sound; 3) is an 'exclusive' toy of another pet in the household.  In each of these cases, action can now be taken to avoid a repeat performance! 

Note:  Many breeders believe that it is useful to work with Basenjis from puppyhood to instill a lack of possessiveness.  This process begins in infancy when the puppy is first able to pick up and carry objects in its mouth.  Teaching the command "Give it," or "Let me see it," taking the object from the puppy, examining it briefly, and giving it back to the puppy can help him to view your efforts to take various items away with less apprehension.  These training efforts prove useful in some instances and with some types of contraband --- but not in others.  This author suggests NEVER attempting to take stolen food items away from your Basenji unless the item is poisonous, or otherwise extremely hazardous to your dog's health.  Is this teaching your Basenji that it can steal your dinner and get away with it?  No.  It is a fairly simple question of whether the risk is worth the benefit.  The benefit is retrieving your half-chewed chicken breast.  The risk  -and it is a very real one - is that no matter how well trained your Basenji may be, he or she may bite you. 

Bear in mind that your Basenjis is a native African hunting dog - even if he is many generations removed from the Congo.  The instincts that allowed your Basenji to survive (to aggressively seek out and consume food, for example) are still present, and may display themselves in startling (and sometimes frightening) ways.  Remembering that your Basenji is different than other domestic breed helps to put training (with respect o possessive behavior, obedience or any other area) into perspective.  If your training efforts are tempered with an understanding of your Basenji's original function and purpose, and a generous dose of common sense and good humor, you will stand a good chance of moderating your Basenji's behavior.  If you go to the mat over issues such as stolen food  - items that your Basenji isn't at all likely to give up without a real fight - the game is not worth the candle.  Once your Basenji has a stolen food item, the game is over and you have lost.  Next time, don't leave your dinner plate unguarded and expect your (native African hunting) dog to sit quietly on the floor by your chair.  The name of the game is realistic expectations.  In many circumstances we ask our Basenjis to modify their behavior to better suit our modern lifestyles.  In a few areas, we need to give them the respect their ancient heritage demands - and modify OUR behavior to avoid unpleasant consequences.