A native of Scotland, the West Highland White Terrier was originally bred for hunting and vermin eradication, although the breed is now much better known for its use as a companion animal. Much cherished for its beautiful white coat and spunky personality, the West Highland White Terrier has long been one of the most popular breeds in the United Kingdom, and is also very popular in the United States. This breed is known for having a typical Terrier temperament, but one that that is slightly less sharp than many other group members. The West Highland White Terrier is commonly referred to by its nickname, the Westie, but is also known as the Roseneath Terrier, White Roseneath Terrier, Pittenweem Terrier, Poltalloch Terrier, and White Scottish Terrier.
The West Highland White Terrier is one of the youngest Terrier breeds, and more of its ancestry is known than most other members of the family. The Terriers are a group of breeds and landraces originally native to the British Isles. These dogs have served a number of purposes over time but their primary roles in England and Scotland were vermin eradication and hunting. For many centuries, these dogs were primarily kept by British farmers who bred them small and short enough to pursue creatures such as badgers and foxes down into their burrows. The word Terrier is a reflection of this purpose. It entered the English language from the Latin word, “Terrarius,” and the French word, “Terre,” both of which mean, “earth,” or, “ground.” Terrier can be roughly translated to mean, “One who goes to ground,” which very accurately describes their hunting style. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word Terrier first appeared in 1440, implying that these dogs were already well-known at that time. However, most experts believe that these dogs are far older.
Beginning in the 1st Century A.D., the Roman Empire consolidated its control over what is now England and Wales. Highly skilled dog breeders themselves, the Romans were incredibly impressed with British dogs and for the entire Roman period dogs were one of the Britain’s primary exports. The most famous breed was the Pugnaces Britanniae, a massive war dog used by the Pre-Roman Celts and thought to be either the English Mastiff or the Irish Wolfhound. However, equally desirable were various types of small hunting dogs, thought to be the ancestors of Terriers and Springer Spaniels. The clear implication is that Terrier-type dogs have been present in Britain since at least the 1st Century, and that they were already used for hunting. Strong credence to this belief can be found just south of the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall, which was built by the Romans to protect their holdings in England from fierce and unconquerable Pictish and Gaelic tribes living in what is now Scotland. 1st Century artifacts from the region include the remains of two distinct types of dogs. One was a medium-sized coursing dog which was probably virtually identical to a modern Whippet or small Greyhound. The other was a short-legged and long-bodied dog similar to a modern Dachshund or Skye Terrier. The fact that these two dogs were found together indicates that as early as Roman Times, Terriers were already being used in the same fashion that they are to this day. A larger and faster sight hound or scent hound locates game and then gives chase to it. When the quarry flees to the safety of its burrow, a tenacious Terrier is sent down the burrow to kill to prey and bring it back to the surface. Due to the find’s age and closeness to the Scottish border, it is safe to assume that short-legged, long-bodied hunting Terriers have been present in Scotland since before the birth of Christ. Because of an extreme paucity of archaeological and historical data, it is virtually impossible to say anything with certainty about the origin of these ancient Terriers other than they were almost certainly developed entirely within the British Isles and that they may have some connection to the Irish Wolfhound and Canis Segusius, a wire-haired hunting dog owned by the Pre-Roman Celts of modern-day France and Belgium.
However and whenever they were first developed, Terriers became highly-valued to the farmers who kept them. For many centuries, Terriers were primarily bred by rural peasants, who used them to eradicate vermin that posed a danger to their crops and livestock, and were vital in the prevention of starvation and disease. Terriers were used to hunt and kill virtually every small or medium-sized mammal species native to the British Isles, including rats, mice, badgers, foxes, otters, minks, wildcats, rabbits, and hares. At this point, Terriers were bred almost exclusively for work, and appearance only mattered to the extent that they influenced working ability. Due to local conditions and breeding preferences, a large number of localized Terrier varieties developed, but they were not true breeds in the modern sense. They were closer to landraces, quite variable in appearance and frequently crossed with each other. The Terriers of Scotland were usually quite short and small, not only allowing them to enter the burrows of their prey but also making them inexpensive enough to keep that even the poorest farmer could afford to maintain at least one. Although rough-coated Terriers were also found in England, Wales, and Ireland, the coat-type was especially associated with Scotland.
Perhaps the traits for which the Terriers of Scotland were best known were their extreme tenacity and hardiness. Much of Scotland is covered in very challenging and difficult terrain, especially in the Highlands. Not only is the terrain difficult, but the climate can be very harsh and cold as well. Conditions in the Highlands make life extremely difficult for both man and dog. Natural selection would have eliminated any Terrier not capable of surviving in the region. Additionally, there were not enough resources to spare for a dog that was not skilled at performing its designated job, and any inadequate dog was put to sleep, usually by drowning. To test their Terrier’s hunting abilities, a young Terrier would be placed into a barrel with a live otter or badger, both of which are known for their extreme ferocity. This invariably resulted in a fight to the death between the tenacious dog and the wild beast. Those Terriers which passed the test were considered worthy of being fed, and those that did not were no longer a problem. This may seem extremely cruel to modern eyes, but it was considered necessary in a time when the food and monetary cost of keeping a dog put an extreme hardship on a family’s survival, but also provided necessary protection from vermin.
Eventually, several distinct varieties of Terrier were developed in Scotland, but they were regularly interbred. Gradually, economic conditions improved in Scotland, and it was possible for more organized dog breeding programs to begin. These programs were inspired by the English Foxhound. Beginning in the 1700’s, Foxhound breeders began to keep organized studbooks to improve the quality of their dogs, and to ensure that they remained pure bred. The results were so successful that breeders of hunting Terriers began to do the same. Because it was still quite expensive to keep a number of Terriers, most (but far from all) major Terrier breeding programs were initiated by wealthy landowners. At one point, the Terriers of Scotland were incredibly variable in appearance, coat type, and color, but over the course of the 19th Century they became more standardized. Some of the most popular varieties eventually became known as Scottish Terriers, Skye Terriers, and Cairn Terriers, although all three were considered to be the same breed at one point. Although largely standardized and separated now, during the 1800’s, all three of these dogs were quite variable and not quite distinct from each other.
With some frequency, white Terriers were born in the litters of otherwise normally colored Terriers. It is a commonly held belief that the white color was introduced by Malteses and Bichon Frises that survived the sinking of the Spanish Armada, but this is probably just legend. These dogs were considered highly inferior, because they were thought to be weaker and less tenacious than other Terriers, as well as being less-well camouflaged. It was a traditional practice to drown any white Terrier puppy when its coloration became clear. However, in the closing decades of the 19th Century, attitudes had begun to change and at least three distinct lines of pure white Terrier were developed in the Highlands. Although the exact dates of their founding are not known with precision, the earliest of these lines is thought to have been bred by George Campbell, the 8th Duke of Argyll. The Duke bred a solid white strain of Scottish Terriers, likely for no other reason than he preferred the color. His white dogs became known as Roseneath Terriers. At around the same time, Dr. America Edwin Flaxman of Fife owned a female Scottish Terrier that he highly prized and greatly desired to breed. It is said that no matter what sire he bred her to she produced exclusively white puppies. After drowning more than 20 of the white dogs, he came to the conclusion that it was an ancient trait in the Scottish Terrier breed that was attempting to force its way back out.
Flaxman decided that he should develop a line of pure white Terriers based on his Scottish Terrier’s offspring. He called his line of white Scottish Terriers 'Pittenweem Terriers'.
While Campbell and Flaxman were working on their lines, a third distinct type of white Terrier was developed in Scotland by Edward Donald Malcolm, the 16th Laird (Lord) of Poltalloch. Malcolm had a long and distinguished military career before retiring to spend his days hunting with Terriers, his favorite pastime. A popular story (which is also very likely true) tells of how Malcolm went hunting with his beloved Cairn Terrier. The little brown dog was in hot pursuit of a fox when it either chased the fox into its burrow or into some thick brush. When a brown blur ran out, Malcolm shot it thinking that his quarry was making a run for it. To his great sadness, the Laird realized that he had killed his favorite dog on accident. Malcolm was absolutely devastated and stricken with grief, and vowed to breed a line of pure white Cairn Terriers so that he would never make that mistake again. Through a concerted breeding program, Malcolm created a breed that was virtually identical to the Cairn Terrier (short body, round head, prick ears, etcetera) in all aspects other than color. Malcolm’s Terrier’s became known as Poltalloch Terriers in his honor.
There has been much speculation as to whether Malcolm bred his Poltalloch Terriers with Campbell’s Roseneath Terriers and/or Flaxman’s Pittenweem Terriers. Malcolm and Campbell definitely knew each other and of their mutual breeding efforts, but it unclear if their relationship extended beyond acquaintances. Malcolm and Flaxman not only knew each other, but were supposedly good friends. Sources who knew Malcolm and his breeding program personally offered different opinions of whether or not the he crossed his dogs with Pittenweem and/or Roseneath Terriers. In truth, it does not really matter whether Malcolm did it himself, because the large number of fanciers which followed the first three breeders definitely crossed the lines and possibly added in other white Terriers as well. In the early 1900’s, a number of breed fanciers wanted to form the Poltalloch Terrier Club. However, in 1903, Malcolm made it clear that he did not want to be known as the breed’s sole founder and requested that the dog be given a different name (strong indication that the honorable Laird recognized and respected the contributions of Campbell and Flaxman).
In 1904, the first breed club for the Roseneath Terrier was founded by Niall Campbell, the 10th Duke of Argyll who would also serve as its first president. This club quickly failed and a second club was founded with the Countess of Aberdeen as its first chairperson. The second chairperson was none other than Edward Donald Malcolm himself. In 1907, the breed was granted formal recognition with the Kennel Club, although breed members were still allowed to have Scottish and Cairn Terrier pedigrees. By 1908, breed fanciers had settled on the name West Highland White Terrier for the breed. This name was chosen because it accurately described all three founding lines in terms of location of creation and type. The first written appearance of the name West Highland White Terrier can be found in the 1908 book, Otters and Otter Hunting by L.C.R. Cameron. In 1907, West Highland White Terriers were first exhibited in a London dog show and caused quite a stir. The breed quickly became extremely popular and rapidly spread throughout the United Kingdom. The white color that had once made these dogs so undesirable with hunters greatly increased their popularity in the show ring and with those looking for an attractive pet. By World War II, the West Highland White Terrier had become one of the most popular breeds in the United Kingdom, a spot it has never given up.
The first West Highland White Terriers to be imported to the United States were a pair brought from the United Kingdom by Robert Goelet in 1907 or 1908. At the time, the name West Highland White Terrier had not been decided upon and the breed was initially known as the Roseneath Terrier in the United States. The American Kennel Club granted full recognition to the Roseneath Terrier in 1908, and the Roseneath Terrier Club of America was founded the following year to promote and protect the breeding of the dog. In 1910, the AKC officially changed the breed’s name to the West Highland White Terrier in respect of the Kennel Club’s decision to do the same. The Roseneath Terrier Club of America immediately followed suit and became known as the West Highland White Terrier Club of America (WHWTCA). In 1919, the United Kennel Club (UKC) also granted full recognition to the breed. Almost immediately upon its first appearance in an American dog show, the West Highland White Terrier became highly popular and sought after in that country. The breed quickly became one of the most popular Terriers in America, as well as a very common breed in general. Although very popular across the Atlantic, the West Highland White Terrier has never quite attained the level of popularity it enjoys in its homeland. Whereas the breed is regularly in the top ten in terms of registrations in the UK, in the United States it has consistently ranked between 25 and 40.
In the United States and the United Kingdom (as well as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), the West Highland White Terrier quickly made the transition from pure working terrier to a strictly show and companion breed. This transition was largely complete by World War II in the United Kingdom, and immediately upon its arrival in the United States. Breeders of this dog focused on its conformation rather than its working abilities. They also sought to substantially soften the dog’s temperament to make it better suited to life as a pet, while maintaining its inherently Terrier-like personality. The resulting dogs were considerably less-sharp than most Terriers, but still possessed much of their fire. Perhaps of most pride to the dog’s many breeders was its regular success in the show ring. West Highland White Terriers have regularly competed at the very highest levels of conformation showing on both sides of the Atlantic. Since 1960, breed members have won Best-In-Show multiple times at both Westminster and Crufts, by far the most prestigious dog shows in the world.
The extreme popularity of the West Highland White Terrier may have caused some damage to the breed. As since this time a large number of West Highland White Terrier puppies have been bred by commercial breeding operations (puppy mills) to satisfy the demand for these dogs. Many of these operations have cruel and insanitary conditions, and produce dogs with poor conformation, bad health, and unstable temperaments. Although much better intentioned, a large number of casual breeders with little experience in dog breeding have done similar damage. For these reasons, anyone wishing to acquire a West Highland White Terrier should carefully select a breeder or rescue group.
In recent years, a number of West Highland White Terriers have served as therapy dogs, sniffer dogs, and service dogs for the handicapped, although other breeds are generally preferred for these purposes. Additionally, West Highland White Terriers regularly appear in obedience trials, agility competitions, and other canine sports. However, the vast majority of West Highland White Terriers on both sides of the Atlantic are now primarily show dogs and companion animals tasks at which this breed excels. Although breed numbers appear to be falling slightly, the West Highland White Terrier remains very popular in the United States and its future is very secure in that country. In 2010, the breed ranked 34th out of 167 total dogs in terms of AKC registrations.
The West Highland White Terrier has the short-legged and long-bodied appearance typical of other Terriers from Scotland, but has a striking solid white coat. As is common among many Terrier breeds, the West Highland White Terrier is quite small. Most males stand between 10 and 12 inches at the shoulder and weigh between 15 to 22 pounds. The slightly smaller females typically stand between 9 and 11 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh between 13 and 16 pounds. The West Highland White Terrier is noticeably longer than it is tall, although not to the extent of a Scottish Terrier. Much of the reduction in this breed’s stature is due to its very short legs, although the length and texture of the coat makes the legs appear shorter than they actually are. This is a very stocky dog, and most are quite thickly-built. Although largely obscured by hair, most of these dogs are very well-muscled. Unlike most other Terriers, The tail of the West Highland White Terrier is never docked. However, it is still quite short, around five or six inches in length. The tail is carried upright with a slight curve, and its tip should be roughly the same height as the top of the head to create a balanced appearance.
The head of the West Highland White Terrier is relatively large for the size of the dog, largely the result of its width. The head and neck should extend almost straight up from the body rather than extending forwards. The muzzle of this breed is on the shorter end of average in length, but is very broad and powerful. The muzzle and face blend in very smoothly, although they are still distinct. The muzzle ends in a solid black nose and contains a mouth with black lips and large (relative to the size of the dog) teeth The eyes of this breed are dark in color and set wide-apart, and starkly contrast with the breed’s coat. The ears of a West Highland White Terrier are naturally erect, and stick up to a sharp point. The ears are relatively small in size, which is enhanced by their placement far apart from each other on the sides of the head. The overall expression of a West Highland White Terrier is sharp and piercing.
The coat of the West Highland White Terrier is the breed’s defining and most important characteristic. According to the AKC standard the ideal coat is, “Very important and seldom seen to perfection.” This breed is double-coated, with a softer and denser undercoat. “The outer coat consists of straight hard white hair, about two inches long, with shorter coat on neck and shoulders, properly blended and trimmed to blend shorter areas into furnishings, which are longer on stomach and legs.” The hair on the head is plucked to present a round shape. The coat should be as hard and straight as possible although, “Furnishings may be somewhat softer and longer but should never give the appearance of fluff.” Dogs with soft coats, silky coats, or curly coats are severely faulted. In practice, many owners who do not show often shave their dogs’ coats very short for ease of maintenance and heat relief. As would be expected based on the breed’s name, the West Highland White Terrier only comes in one color, pure solid white. Occasionally, a puppy will be born with substantially darker coloration, usually wheaten. These dogs are ineligible in the show ring, but otherwise are identical to other West Highland White Terriers.
The West Highland White Terrier has the classic Terrier temperament, but is somewhat softer-tempered and less combatative than many other members of the group. The West Highland White Terrier is known to be among the most people-oriented of the Terrier family. Most of these dogs absolutely crave the constant companionship of their families. This can become problematic as some breed members suffer from severe separation anxiety. Unlike many Terriers, the West Highland White Terrier tends to be very openly affectionate, including licking, tail wagging, and cuddling. West Highland White Terriers do have a tendency to become one-person dogs that greatly prefer the company of a certain individual to whom they are closest. However, when raised in a multi-person home they often (but not always) form equally strong bonds with the entire family.
Very much unlike most other members of the Terrier group, most West Highland White Terriers are quite tolerant of strangers. When properly socialized, the vast majority of breed members are friendly and polite, and many of these dogs are very excited to meet any potential new friend. This breed is very likely to become an inappropriate greeter who jumps up and licks faces, so some training is ideal. Although usually friendly, many West Highland White Terriers take a little bit of time to form close bonds with a new person in their lives such as a spouse or roommate, though most will eventually. When not properly socialized, West Highland White Terriers may be somewhat nervous or suspicious of new people, which may lead to aggression. Untrained Westies can be quite nippy, although well-trained ones very rarely are. This breed is highly alert and very vocal, making it an excellent watch dog. A Westie would make a very poor guard dog, though, as they are neither intimidating nor aggressive enough.
When properly trained and socialized, most West Highland White Terriers are tolerant of children, and this breed has one of the best reputations with kids of any Terrier. Although any dog which has not been exposed to children is likely to be unnerved by the jerky motions and loud sounds made by children, the Westie is less likely to be bothered by them. Most breed members are fond of gentle and respectful children. Potential problems can arise when children attempt to rough house with the dog or do not respect its personal space. West Highland White Terriers do not like rough play, and while not quick to snap are unafraid to defend themselves if necessary. Additionally, many of these dogs develop possessiveness issues and will react aggressively if some attempts to take one of their toys or handle them while they eat.
Most Westies are accepting of other dogs, and when socialized usually get along well with them. Some breed members do exhibit same-sex aggression and possessiveness can be a problem as well, but most of these issues can be corrected. While generally fine with strange dogs, not all breed members particularly enjoy having a canine housemate at first, although most eventually come around. The majority of West Highland White Terriers also get along well with cats, if they have been accustomed to their presence from a young age (if not, this breed can be quite cat aggressive). However, this dog was bred to be a relentless hunter, and they still exhibit a very high degree of aggression towards small animals. A Westie left outside for any length of time will probably bring its owner “presents” of dead animals ranging in size from a beetle to a rabbit, and leaving a small pet such as a hamster alone with one of these dogs is essentially giving it a death sentence.
Training a West Highland White Terrier can be extremely challenging, but not to the extent as is the case with many other Terriers. Westies certainly do not live to please, and they tend to be quite independent-minded. Most of these dogs are very stubborn, and many could be fairly described as willful. Sometimes, a Westie will refuse to do something, and that is essentially the end of that. West Highland White Terriers usually have a what’s-in-it-for-me attitude towards training and tend to respond much better to rewards-based training methods than correction-based ones, but there is no guarantee that even those will work. Although not as constantly challenging as most Terriers, West Highland White Terriers are very likely to believe that they are the boss. Westies will absolutely not obey anyone who they feel is lower than themselves on the social totem pole, so it is imperative that their owners maintain a position of dominance at all times. All that being said, West Highland White Terriers are generally willing to please to a certain extent (although they do not desire to do so), and most can become very well-trained. This breed is intelligent and capable of learning a great deal (including a number of very impressive tricks) for owners that are willing to take the necessary time and effort.
The West Highland White Terrier is an energetic and playful little dog, and this is not a breed that will be satisfied with a couple of potty walks. This breed needs an outlet for its energy, otherwise they tend to become destructive, excessively vocal, hyperactive, and overly excitable. However, a long daily walk is probably enough exercise for the average Westie, and an average family (and even relatively inactive ones) will be able to meet the needs of this breed without too much of a hassle. While this breed loves to have an opportunity to run around off-leash in a safely enclosed area, they do very well in apartments with the proper walks. The West Highland White Terrier is always alert and excitable, and would never be described as a calm dog. On the other hand, this breed is not always on edge like many other Terriers, and most very much enjoy relaxing on the sofa.
Potential owners of West Highland White Terriers need to be made aware that this is among the “doggiest” of all small dogs. Bred to pursue animals underground, most of these dogs love to dig. Westies are infamous for completely destroying yards with their holes. Many breed members love to run around and get dirty, which their white coats then track into the house. The West Highland White Terrier is one of the most vocal of all dogs. They tend to have very, very high pitched bark, which they often repeat quickly in succession. While training and exercise greatly reduce a Westie’s barking, they will not eliminate it. A Westie is a merry, cheerful, playful, and bold companion rather than a dainty and refined aristocrat.
Due to their small size and Terrier nature, Westies are one of the most likely of all breeds to develop a behavioral condition known as small dog syndrome. Everyone has seen a dog with small dog syndrome; they are the tiny dogs straining at the end of their leashes, constantly yipping, and growling at anything that walks by. Small dog syndrome occurs when owners of a small dog do not correct its behaviors in the same way that they would those of a larger dog. Cuteness, humor, inexperience, and threat and danger levels are all excuses given for this lack of correction. The end result of this lack of correction is a dog that comes to believes that it is control of everyone and everything. Small dog syndrome can take many forms, including aggressiveness, dominance, excessive barking, misbehavior, and totally lack of control. Luckily, small dog syndrome is largely preventable and correctable with proper training of the dog and appropriate behavior on the part of owners.
As is the case with many other Terriers, the West Highland White Terrier has substantial grooming requirements. This breed requires a regular brushing with a stiff bristle brush. The Westie also needs its coat trimmed every three to four months, owners may learn to do this themselves, but most choose to have their dogs professionally groomed. Additionally, the West Highland White Terrier needs to have its coat stripped at least twice a year. As with trimming, stripping can be done at home, but is often easier left to professionals. Having the dog’s hair shaved very short will reduce grooming requirements, but will not eliminate the need for stripping or eventual trimming. The West Highland White Terrier does shed, but different individuals shed different amounts. Some shed very lightly, while others shed moderately.
The West Highland White Terrier is known to suffer from a variety of health problems, but is not regarded as being an exceptionally unhealthy breed. In fact, because many of the most common problems in this breed are non-fatal, Westies tend to be very long-lived. The breed has a life expectancy of between 12 and 16 years, and it is far from unheard of for them to live longer. The WHWTCA conducts health surveys to study the breed’s health, and is working with a number of veterinarians to develop tests and breeding methods which will hopefully drastically reduce future health problems in the breed.
The most common health problem experienced by the West Highland White Terrier is known as atopic dermatitis or atopy. Atopic dermatitis is an allergic reaction to a number of potential allergens that contact a dog’s skin in the air, water, or ground. The condition impacts roughly 10% of all dogs, but a significantly higher proportion of Westies. Atopic dermatitis usually appears between 1 and 3, but can first appear as late as 6 or 7. The skin allergy causes a dog to be extremely itchy, which leads to intense scratching. Depending on the severity of the condition, it can lead to redness, swelling, lesions, infections, and hair loss. Atopic dermatitis can be very difficult to diagnose as it is similar to many conditions, and a dog with this condition is often allergic to many different allergens. Luckily, more than 90% of cases can be controlled by a combination of treatments which must continue for the dog’s entire life. The best treatment is to reduce exposure to allergens, which may lead to significant changes to a dog’s living space and routine. Other possible treatments include immunotherapy, allergy shots, special shampoos, antihistamines, and corticosteroids.
In 2007, the WHWTCA conducted a health survey of purebred West Highland White Terriers. In descending order of frequency, the most common problems identified included: