The West Highland White Terrier is an iconic and much-loved earthdog that gained worldwide popularity in the early 1900s and has remained a sought-after pet and show dog ever since. Among a diverse assortment of terriers hailing from the bleakly beautiful Scottish Highlands, this breed is brainy, feisty, entertaining, and independent – not to mention a marshmallow-white head-turner.
The West Highland White Terrier dog breed
The West Highland White Terrier shares lineage with several other breeds from Scotland, including the Dandie Dinmont, the Skye Terrier, the Scottish Terrier, and the Cairn Terrier. These were scrappy, scruffy, rough-and-tumble earthdogs bred to keep rats and other burrowing undesirables under control in the weather-beaten farms and estates of the Highlands.
The West Highland White Terrier specifically came about on several properties in the 18th century. Edward Donald Malcolm is often singled out as the breed’s originator: He allegedly sought a white-coated ratter after a reddish dog of his was mistaken for a fox and shot. The “Poltalloch Terrier” (named for the Malcolm family’s estate) was an early version of the “Westie,” as were those earthdogs bred on the Roseneath estate. West Highland White as a label was apparently in use by the 1890s, though when the breed was first registered by the American Kennel Club in 1908 it officially went by Roseneath Terrier; the name was changed to the current one a year later.
West Highland White Terriers have been familiar (poofy) faces since the early 20th century, having advertised Scottish whiskey, appeared in innumerable TV shows and movies, and enjoyed high-profile celebrity owners. The American Kennel Club calls the Westie “among the most popular of the small terriers.”
The little, compact West Highland White Terrier stands 10 or 11 inches at the shoulder and weighs 15 to 20 pounds. Its body is short, its ears proudly pricked, and its teeth coming to rest in a scissor bite. The soft undercoat is hidden by a rougher topcoat – durable enough to withstand Scottish downpours and dense brambles along hunting throughways – whose hairs may reach two inches in length.
Fast fact: The stout, stubby tail was traditionally used to pull Westies backwards out of the holes they’d chase vermin into.
Personality and temperament
Given the fluffy white coat, bright cheerful eyes, and small dimensions, you might mistake the West Highland White Terrier for a delicate toy breed, but it’s not in the slightest. This is a tough-as-nails little ratter, after all, come of age in a harsh, hardscrabble land and still exhibiting plenty of the plucky self-sufficiency its ancestors got by with in the Scottish moors.
Westies make great members of the family: loyal, charming, happy-go-lucky, and content to occupy themselves when you’re busy. Their pluckiness means they must be socialized early in order to get along with children and other dogs; they don’t take kindly to rough treatment from little grabby hands, and can be feisty with fellow canines. Like some other terriers, the West Highland White can be territorial over food and playthings. Its ratting blood generally makes it a poor housemate with small pets, and if left unattended your Westie may conduct some impressively extensive excavating work in your backyard.
Shedding and grooming
Shedding’s not a major issue with the West Highland White Terrier, which should be stripped or plucked for the show ring but otherwise can be maintained with periodic clipping. Daily brushing or combing helps keep the coat in good form otherwise, as does an occasional visit to a professional groomer.
Health and lifespan
The West Highland White Terrier lifespan is typically 13 to 16 or so years.
While generally the breed is quite healthy, you should be aware of certain genetic issues – among them “white dog shaker syndrome” – as well as “Westie jaw” (formally called craniomandibular osteopathy), cardiac disease, luxating patellars, and skin irritations.
Daily walks and/or brisk play sessions – ball is a perennial favorite among this dyed-in-the-wool rodent-hunter – will keep your West Highland White Terrier happy and (hopefully) healthy. Given its tendency to pursue nearly any smallish moving object, make sure to keep your Westie on a leash or in a fenced yard when it’s outside.
Training and intelligence
West Highland White Terriers are smart and fast learners, and respond best to training exercises that are kept a bit unpredictable and fun. Rely on consistency and firmness as well as positive reinforcement to work through any flare-ups of terrier-style stubbornness and mischief.