The Dog Breed That Can't Bark

Dogs bark differently in different languages. According to Psychology Today, dogs say, "Wan-wan" in Japanese, "hav-hav" in Hebrew, and "hau-hau" in Kurdish. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, dogs presumably say, "Vroom-vroom" because humans taught them how to drive. But wherever you go in the world, even if the human language is all Greek to you, the dog language will probably follow a recognizable bark pattern — namely, a single syllable that gets vocalized twice in quick succession, such as woof-woof or arf-arf. And if the humans literally speak Greek to you, then the dogs will say, "Ghav-ghav." 

However, every rule has an exception, and there's an exceptional dog breed that doesn't typically bark in Greek, English, or any other language. That's because it doesn't usually bark at all. Unimaginatively dubbed the "Barkless Dog", that canine anomaly is the Basenji, and according to the American Kennel Club, it yodels.

Old yodeler

You might assume that a yodeling dog must hail from the Swiss Alps. But the American Kennel Club explains that the Basenji's roots are in Africa, and those roots go way back in time. In fact, it could be the world's oldest dog breed, a theory consistent with Libyan cave paintings from 6,000 B.C. that appear to depict a Basenji-like canine. Experts believe the first domesticated dogs probably resembled the Basenji. Characterized by a "glistening short coat, tightly curled tail, and wrinkled forehead and expressive almond-shaped eyes," these canines were given to Egyptian pharaohs as gifts. They've also been depicted in ancient Mesopotamian art. 

The Basenji outlived those ancient civilizations and become the best friend of African tribesmen. Natural-born hunters, the dogs boast excellent eyesight, "explosive speed," a strong sense of smell, and a phenomenal vertical leap. The four-legged yodelers also tend to be very quiet because of their unique vocal cords, which inhibit barking. So these literally silent killers wear hunting bells so their owners can keep track of them.

The not-so-barkless dog

Basenjis aren't entirely "barkless." While they seldom bark, the Museum of Hoaxes notes that video evidence suggests that they can, as does the 1965 book, Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. Authors John Paul Scott and John Fuller found that the Basenjis they studied barked when "sufficiently excited" or asserting dominance over other dogs. In the latter case "they usually gave only one or two low 'woofs.'" It may require more elevated levels of stimulation to get basenjis to bark compared to other dogs.

Scott and Fuller acknowledged that they could "only speculate as to why this trait has developed." However, the authors offered a plausible-sounding explanation: they evolved not to sound like dogs. Barking may not have benefited basenjis living in African forests, given the presence of predators like leopards, which "are reportedly fond of dog meat." The authors further noted that travelers have reported hearing basenjis make "yowling" and "crowing" sounds at night. While that might sound like a counterintuitive way not to become cat food, none of the sounds basenjis made sounded doglike. So maybe their nocturnal crowing is unappetizing to leopards. After all, nobody likes eating crow.

The not-so-doglike dog

If you buy a basenji expecting the barkless dog to act like a typical canine, you might be barking up the wrong tree. Obviously, different breeds have different behavioral tendencies. But the basenji tends to behave like a different species of animal. Modern Dog Magazine contributor Kelly Caldwell jokingly asked, "Is this breed half-cat?" Though, maybe she was only half-joking. Basenjis are meticulous self-groomers that don't show an interest in traditional dog activities. When Caldwell's father attempted to play fetch with one of her basenjis, the dog "would train her eyes on the ball and then squint at my dad as if to say, 'You pick it up.'" Meanwhile, Caldwell's other, slightly more agreeable basenji would "sometimes run half-heartedly after the ball, but upon realizing it wasn't a living, breathing thing he'd just flop on the grass and sunbathe."

Don't expect to teach this old dog breed many new tricks either. As The New Complete Dog Book put it, "It is advisable in your training to be consistent and persevere with patience and humor." Basenjis may respond to repetitive commands with boredom. Because hunting's in their blood, they need plenty of exercise and plenty of fencing to prevent them from running into traffic when they want to shed the blood of a squirrel. So they rarely bark, don't play fetch, and respond to your orders with boredom. Maybe the barkless dog is secretly the meow-less cat.