Striving to Improve
After a half century in the game Damara Bolté is still playing her hunches, watching the whelping box, and looking for the next great one.
Looking back over 50 years of involvement with Basenjis brings many happy memories to mind.
The amount of breeding I have done has necessarily been limited to time, space, and outlet. The first two qualifications are easily understood by most. Outlet may be defined as destination or market. In other words, where are these puppies to go, where will one find good homes? Early on, this was even more of a problem in that the breed was relatively unknown and, to be truthful, it is not an easy breed.
Bolt#233; winning her first owner-handled group, the Hound Group at the Philadelphia Kennel Club circa 1963 with Ch. Reveille Recruit under Judge Mr. David S. Edgar.
This is not heresy but simple truth. Basenjis are active, ingenious, persistent, and primarily hunters. To me this means that generally they don’t hang on your every word or whim.
When thinking of the breeds that strive to please their owners, the Basenji does not come immediately to mind. That is not to say that Basenjis never do, but characteristically they like to do what they like to do. A more interesting or engaging animal you would be hard pressed to find.
“Eyes Open, Mouth Shut”
My breeding program was to always strive for improvement. For me, this means improvement not only in type and balance but primarily in soundness: soundness of structure and movement, and soundness of temperament. In my opinion, Basenjis breeders have made remarkable progress in improving temperament.
Generally, Basenjis raised with socialization and care are more domesticated now than 20 years ago. Domestic dogs are what fit into our civilization. Accepting strangers and staying in their confines are characteristics not necessarily advantageous in the Basenji’s native environs, where independence and wariness are definite assets.
As for physical soundness, the breed standard describes structure and gait satisfactorily. I, for one, have always liked the description of the gait as analogous to that of a horse trotting full out.
Shoulders are so important and not always understood or appreciated. So much hinges on the angle and structure of the shoulder blades and upper arm, the carriage of the neck and head, the chest and the topline, and naturally the length of stride.
Observation is the best way to instill in your mind your own interpretation of the standard and idea of excellence. If at a show you find yourself with extra time, sit down by the ring—actually, almost any ring—and see if you can follow the reasoning for the placements.
You don’t always have to agree with the judging, but try to understand it. Remember also that the judge has only something like two minutes to assess each animal and make decisions. Nor are they sitting comfortably outside the ring deciding to themselves but are under scrutiny and time constraints, with no place to hide.
Never miss the opportunity to attend large specialties, especially nationals. These usually provide the best in-depth quality and greatest numbers, which allow observers to see quantity, quality, and variation in type. It’s often constructive to sit with a knowledgeable, objective individual to learn and be able to discuss what you are looking at or what you are seeing. In this manner, you will learn to develop your own opinion and preferences.
Something to keep in mind is that other people are not always interested in your opinion, even if you think of it as constructive, especially if it is critical. Therefore, a safe policy is to keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.
The original purpose of showing animals—initially livestock and now including dogs, was to compare and recognize breeding stock—but this purpose is often camouflaged or lost in the quest for rankings and recognition. The learning that comes with observing instills in your mind’s eye the ideal for what you are striving.
Lending a Whelping Hand
A great deal of thought and research goes into the selection of a pair to be mated. Mostly you start off with the best bitch you can purchase, lease, or have. Then, maybe at the national, where you see such a great cast of potential sires, you look for one that appeals to you and complements your bitch. Of course you have done all the health checks available on your girl and look for the stud dog with all the qualifications. Also look for offspring he has produced. The prospect of a planned litter is truly exciting.
I have always been a kind of “hunch” breeder. I want that certain feeling about a particular planning, which has a lot of basis in phenotype. Looking good on paper is fine, but the two individuals need to be “made for each other.” Then follows the most important and exciting part of all: the whelping. It is still a miracle. I can hardly wait to look over each puppy and see the sex and markings and look for the next “Great One.”
So far it all sounds like a great adventure, but “it ain’t all beer and skittles.” There is always room for things to go wrong. Hence, Bobby Burns’s quote, “The best laid plans of mice and men gang oft agley.” Now, always with progesterone testing there is less chance of wrong timing, so we can hope that your bitch does indeed get in whelp.
Of course, you have read the books on the successive steps. You have her cozily situated by the appropriate time, so she is comfortable in her surroundings. Fortunately, one thing Basenjis generally do easily is whelp and take care of their puppies.
But I can never sit idly by without helping get puppies out and clear the sac and cut the cord. The bitch would probably do all this by herself, but mine certainly like me to be with them, and since I’m there I don’t want to leave anything to chance, such as her biting the cord too short, biting off a foot by mistake, or just not resuscitating a puppy in time—especially if there are quite a few keeping her occupied. When it’s all over with and the whelping box is cleaned up and the mom settles down, it’s usually time to go to bed.
When next you look and see if all is well and check that you counted right and sorted the sexes correctly. Then just watch and enjoy. Mom usually does all the work for at least three weeks. Then, depending on the size of the litter, you think about supplementing their feeding.
Of course, you start having a favorite and really get your hopes up. From being perfect you start to forgive little things that make them a little short of perfect. Nevertheless, you keep looking and holding and cuddling and socializing. Sometimes your allegiance changes to another pup. That’s OK.
At about 8 weeks is my favorite age to judge and rank the litter. It’s certainly not infallible, but you have to decide who goes and who stays. “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
Hopefully, you have found homes for those not staying. I always say it hurts good to have them go by then as they are climbing out of everything, require much more care, and are ready for their forever homes.
Damara Bolté and her Reveille Basenjis have been a dominate influence in the breed for more than 50 years. Bolté was the recipient of The American Kennel Club Breeder of the Year in 2002, representing the Hound Group, and this year’s American Kennel Club Lifetime Achievement Award in Conformation.