What are West Highland White Terrier's like?
Given their adorable, teddy-like appearance, you might be fooled into thinking a Westie is a pretty lapdog. However, they are terrier through and through, with oodles of energy, wit, and courage in a small, snowy package. They might be common companion dogs nowadays, but these sweet-looking white pups were once voracious vermin catchers.
Some owners can seem surprised to find that Westies have so many “typical” terrier traits, including a high prey drive and a bold, tenacious nature. I suppose I always used to picture Westies as these immaculate little white dogs in tartan jackets, usually accompanying an older couple.
However, West Highland White Terriers are surprisingly energetic and confident, and are just as much of a courageous ratter as other breeds like the Jack Russell Terrier.
Because they are quite high-energy and can become boisterous, it’s im-paw-tent that these dogs have moderate daily exercise and benefit from regular playtime and training sessions too to keep their active mind ticking over.
These terrier traits do mean your Westie might have a stubborn streak as well as a tendency to bark.
A West Highland White Terrier’s prey drive means that they will be super interested in toys (especially those that move or squeak) and it does mean they are not a breed suitable for households with small furries roaming around.
West Highland White Terriers are beautiful and bold little dogs, with big personalities to accompany their unmistakable look. Solid white in colour with expressive, dark eyes and a coal-black nose, they are a pooch that attracts attention.
However, your Westie won’t demand attention themselves as although they are playful and affectionate, they aren’t too worried about being the centre of attention and don’t always appreciate a fuss.
Most West Highland White Terriers are fairly social and do get on with other dogs and children, but their temperament and tolerance will vary greatly between individual dogs.
Where is the West Highland White Terrier from?
The West Highland White Terrier has paw-tentially the most literal name for any breed of dog because as well as being an all-white terrier, they originate from the west highlands of Scotland.
The history of the Westie is long and rather unclear. It’s believed that the breed shares its ancestry with a number of other Scottish terriers, including the Cairn Terrier, Scottish Terrier, and Dandie Dinmont Terrier.
Originally, the whole pack of Scottish terriers were grouped as just that, “Scotch Terriers”.
What were West Highland White Terriers bred for?
Like many terrier breeds, Westies were bred to be skilled vermin catchers. They were mostly used to go to ground and chase foxes out into a hunt. However, they have also been used to catch other prey including rats and even otters.
When were Westies developed?
There are numerous stories of Scottish clan leaders keeping white terriers for centuries, but there is little record about their breeding and origin.
Mention of white terriers from Scotland go as far back as the 17th century, when King James VI of Scotland (King James I of England) requested that several white terriers be gifted to France.
What these white terriers were exactly is unclear, but they could easily have been an ancestor of the modern Westie.
Many theorise they were simply a white version of a Cairn Terrier or Scottish Terrier as although white coloured dogs were undesirable, the breeds did still carry genes that allowed white puppies to be born.
How different breeds or colourations developed was down to personal preference, regional differences, and even a clan or families preference for a paw-ticular line of dogs. This meant that several groups of white terriers appeared in Scotland at around the same time.
In the 19th century, a line of white Scottish Terriers called “Roseneath Terriers” were developed by the Duke of Argyll. Meanwhile in Fife, Dr. Americ Edwin Flaxman bred a line of white terriers called “Pittenweem Terriers.
He was actually just trying to breed his favourite Scottish Terrier, but for some reason all her puppies were white no matter what dog he used to sire the litter. Allegedly, he drowned about 20 puppies because they were white and the colour was seen as a fault.
However, he eventually decided the white colour must have been an old trait deep in the breed that was trying to re-emerge and eventually stopped culling the poor pups.
However, the creation of the modern West Highland White Terrier is much credited to Edward Donald Malcolm, who was a dedicated huntsman and bred his own terriers. However, on one fateful hunt, tragedy struck.
One of his beloved terriers was mistakenly shot when a hunter thought it was a fox emerging from its den.
From then on, Malcolm decided to only breed white terriers because the distinctive coat colour would make it easy to distinguish them from the hares and foxes they would be hunting.
There’s a similar mythology about why Jack Russells and other foxing terriers are mostly white, so that they are easy to spot and tell apart from foxes. In other words, the dog’s white fur is it’s own high-vis jacket, making them stand out to prevent accidents and keep them safe.
Malcolm’s white terriers became known as “Poltalloch Terriers” because he was the 16th Laird of Poltalloch. His terriers were sandy or off-white coloured at first, with upright “prick” ears.
But by 1903, Malcolm said he didn’t want to be credited as the sole creator of this new breed and requested that the name be changed, which it was, and they eventually became the West Highland White Terrier.
What makes a Westie?
There is no record of the pedigree of Malcolm’s dogs, so the origins of the Poltalloch Terrier (the Westie) are vague. However, it was clear that Malcolm valued dogs that had gameness, with a high prey drive and a willingness to pursue and attack prey.
These dogs would also have to be fairly hardy to deal with the wet and cold conditions in northern Scotland. Plus, they would need to go to ground after a fox, so would need to be able to head underground and navigate the dens and tunnels of their prey.
Within a year, the first breed club had been set up and by 1907 the breed was being shown at Crufts and had been recognised by the Kennel Club. Westies began to appear in America by then, and were recognised by the American Kennel Club as “Roseneath Terriers”, but that name only stuck for a year before it was changed to West Highland White Terrier.
Interestingly though, despite the breed recognition, the name “West Highland White Terrier” was only first recorded in 1908 in the book, “Otters and Otter Hunting”.
Westies are surprisingly heavy considering they are quite short, and despite never reaching a foot tall they are usually well over 6kg in weight.
Here are the average statistics for a West Highland White Terrier:
|Average Height (Withers):||28 cm||25.4 cm|
|Average Weight:||6.8-10 kg||5.8-7.2 kg|
|Lifespan:||12-15 years||12-15 years|
|Sheds:||Yes (Very little)||Yes (Very little)|
West Highland White Terrier facts
Pure white but not pure blood
Up until 1924, Westies shown at dog shows in the UK were allowed to have Scottish Terrier and Cairn Terrier blood, so they weren't always purebred. It wasn’t until the 30s when a stable, defined pure breed emerged.
Famous wee faces
Westies have made a few star turns over the years. Most notoriously paw-haps was the use of a Westie in a film about Greyfriars Bobby, when the real life Greyfriars Bobby was in fact a Skye Terrier. It caused a bit of pup-set at the time!
Otherwise, you might have seen these delightful dogs in Hamish Macbeth, Game Night, Jeeves and Wooster, King of the Hill, or as the face of Cesar dog food.
You’ll need to keep an eye on your Westies ears come summer, because they can actually get sun-burned! So if you and the pooch are planning on hitting the beach or soaking up some sun, remember you’ll both need to put on a bit of sunscreen first.
West Highland Terrier puppies
When are Westies full grown?
Usually a West Highland White Terrier puppy will reach their adult size by the time they reach their first birthday.
You might find your Westie reaches their adult size as early as 6 months, and then spends the next 6 months developing muscle and putting on weight. (Just make sure they don’t become overweight!)
Your Westie puppy might still have bags of energy and puppyish enthusiasm until they are 2, which is when most people consider dogs to reach maturity and calm down.
Are Westies easy to train?
West Highland White Terriers are not the easiest dog to train. Given these dogs are pretty confident and a little stubborn, it can be hard to win them over into doing what you want.
Even once trained, they can become headstrong and might not respond unless they know there’s something in it for them.
However, they are reasonably smart dogs and do love people, so they can be willing to please. You will just need to have plenty of treats to hand, and you and the pooch might both benefit from ongoing training throughout your dog’s life as it’ll help keep their active mind ticking over and reinforce your bond.
West Highland White Terrier names
Not sure what name to pick out for your new furry friend? You could take inspiration from famous Westies like “Jock” on Hamish Macbeth, or “McDuff” the dog from the series of the same name.
Generally, Westies are confident little dogs that know how to stand on their own four paws, but remain cheerful and playful. As the breed standard puts it, they have “no small amount of self-esteem”. In other words, they’re a bit cocky!
This little dog packs bags of character and charm. They are affectionate and loving little dogs, but they don’t make great lap dogs as they don’t all like to be coddled and most dogs have a lot of get up and go attitude.
Westies are at their happiest when they’re on the move or have a job to do, so be prepared to spend plenty of time on walks and enjoying structured playtime.
Some ruff behaviour
That being said, the temperament of a West Highland White Terrier does vary a lot between individual dogs. Typically, they are very people-friendly, and are quite social with other dogs despite their terrier tendencies.
But that friendliness does not extend to other animals, and Westies have a high prey drive, and when combined with their stubborn streak, means they will give chase to anything and not give up. Because of this, you should never let your pooch off the lead unless you’re in a secure environment.
Although usually very sociable and loving, some individual West Highland Terriers can show aggression, particularly involving dominance and can be directed at dogs or people.
However, this can be prevented with proper socialisation with other humans and hounds as well as solid training. Westies can be prone to guarding food and toys, and again, this will require training to prevent it becoming a bad habit and a risk for a nipped finger.
Loving and lively little dogs
Generally though, these little dogs are a bundle of energy and they are always raring to go on an adventure with you. Although not every Westie will want to cuddle up on your lap for long, they are usually quite happy to chill on the sofa with you.
They certainly aren’t aloof as they are playful and love human company, making them paw-some companions. They’re just not always fond of fondling and can become restless if they’re sat still and inside for too long.
The Westie’s sweet expression and temperament makes them a rather unformidable dog, and their friendliness means they are not suited for guard dog duties. As a watchdog though, they’re second to none, and always ready to alert you to anything going on.
Is a Westie a good family dog?
West Highland White Terriers are actually well-known for being good family dogs. Although their sociability and tolerance will depend on the individual dog and their paw-sonality, as well as early socialisation.
Most Westies are happy to live with children but both the dog and kids will need to be taught how to socialise properly with one another.
Westies are also more social than other terrier breeds and can live with other dogs and even cats. Although if you have a feline, it’s best to introduce the dog as a puppy.
However, Westies are not a good choice for a house with lots of little animals and birds. Small furries seem too much like prey to a terrier like a Westie, and they are likely to chase and maybe even kill anything small and furry they find.
Even the most well-trained Westie in the world will still show these terrier instincts, so paw-tential families need to be aware of this pooch’s prey drive.
Do Westies bark a lot?
Yes, unfortunately, Westies are known to be barkers. It’s thought that a strong bark was necessary for their use hunting vermin, so if they got stuck underground their human might hear them barking and be able to dig them out.
In the modern world where most dogs are simply companions and a lot of barking can upset the neighbours, regular ruffing can be a problem. This is paw-ticularly true for anyone living in a flat.
Your Westie certainly knows how to make their voice heard, and will probably bark at anything out of the ordinary, whether it’s a knock at the door, a cat in their garden, or a dog walking past on the street outside.
However you can train your pooch to understand a “quiet” command so you can manage their tendency to woof.
Can Westies be left alone?
Generally, yes, Westies can be left home alone but it will take some training. While Westies are not especially prone to separation anxiety, they do adore human company, so being alone for long periods could lead to boredom and destructive behaviour, barking, and a very sad doggo.
You should practice gradual separation and crate training until your dog is happy to spend time alone and confident that you will be home soon. Never leave an adult dog alone for longer than eight hours, and never leave a puppy alone for two hours or more. (Less is more for pups!)
On outward appearances, Westies are stunning little dogs. If they are well brushed and the furnishings left long, they can look very elegant with their striking white coat and skirt.
However, the appearance of the West Highland White Terrier can vary a lot according to the texture of the fur and desired haircut the dog is given.
Many are kept in short, almost scruffy looking haircuts because they are easy to maintain and give a very cute puppy-like appearance, emphasising their bright, dark eyes and nose.
Under all that fur, they are a very well-built dog. They have very powerful back legs and are compact and muscular which can sometimes be hidden under all that hair. They are a little shorter than they are long, and hold their heads and tails high with an air of self-importance. Westies will always have quite thick, straight tails, and upright, pointed ears.
Speaking of tails, they should be “carrot shaped”, thick, muscular, and straight. The story goes that they needed to have strong, thick tails that their owner could grab like a handle and use to pull the pooch out of the ground or tunnels they had delved into.
However, we strongly advise you never, ever try pulling a pooch’s tail.
West Highland White Terriers are classed as a small size dog and rarely reach a foot tall, and they should be slightly longer than they are tall. Within the terrier group, they are considered a medium-sized terrier.
Funnily enough, the West Highland White Terrier only comes in white. This breed is famed for its snow-white fur, which contrasts beautifully with their black eyes, nose, claws, and foot pads.
Living with a Westie
How long do Westies live for?
A Westie can live between 12 to 16 years, with an average lifespan of 13.4 years. The average lifespan for a male West Highland White Terrier was slightly longer at 13.8 years, while a female only had an average lifespan of 12.9 years.
It’s a little better than the average lifespan across all dog breeds, and there are individuals who make it into their mid teens.
As long as your pooch is healthy, well exercised, and fed a balanced diet you should expect them to reach their teens.
How much exercise do Westies need?
Although many people consider West Highland White Terriers as companion dogs, these pooches are quite high energy and active. Although they seem to understand the need to be a bit more sedate in the house, Westies thrive on activity and games.
You should expect to spend at least one hour every day walking your Westie. Plus, you will need to have plenty of play time and training sessions to prevent boredom.
What problems do Westies have?
Sadly, West Highland White Terriers are prone to a few health conditions. Some of the most common Westie health problems are:
- Skin conditions
- Luxating patella
- Ear problems
- Dental issues
- Tear stains
- Craniomandibular osteopathy
- Westie lung
In the US at least, almost a quarter of all Westies have atopic dermatitis. However, a survey by the Kennel Club found 17.4% of West Highland White Terriers suffer with either hypersensitivity, dermatitis, or chronic itching. Either way, that’s still a lot of dogs with itchy, sensitive skin!
Terrier breeds are prone to luxating patella (dislocating knees) because their knees are bent and their legs are slightly bowed.
The condition seems more prevalent in American pooches. (5.5% of dogs in the US, but less than 2% of British dogs.) You might also want to keep an eye on your pup’s hips too, as Westies can develop Legg-Perthes disease which causes the hip joint to crumble.
West Highland White Terriers can be prone to otitis externa, a condition where the cells in their ear canal become inflamed. If your pooch is shaking their head a lot or scratching at their ears, it may be a sign of ear infection or a problem like otitis. It isn’t usually a cause for deep concern, but your dog might need medication to help soothe their ear and reduce inflammation.
Dental problems and poor oral health seem to plague Westies. It could be because they have small jaws and their teeth get overcrowded, making it easier for food to get stuck.
However, regularly brushing your pup’s teeth should help to keep their canines (and other teeth) as white as their fur and free from plaque and tartar. It’ll stop the dreaded doggy breath too!
Any dog can develop tear stains, but with Westies, it will cause obvious rust-red stains on their otherwise brilliant white coat. This can look unsightly and may have a myriad of paw-tential causes.
Tear stains can be a symptom of another problem so you should get a vet to check your pooch over before trying to treat them.
Sometimes, a simple dietary change is enough to prevent stains, and Pure has plenty of success stories helping to stop stains and keep pooches looking and feeling their best.
Although uncommon, Westies are more likely than other breeds to develop craniomandibular osteopathy.
This condition is sometimes called “lion jaw” or even “Westie jaw”, and is a developmental issue where there is excessive growth in the bones of their faces, particularly the jaw.
There is no treatment for the condition, and dogs who suffer are usually given supportive treatment to relieve any pain.
In most dogs, the bony growths stop once they mature, however depending on how the bones are affected it could cause lifetime issues. In the worst cases, a dog’s jaw might fuse completely and require surgery or even euthanasia.
Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, which is sometimes known as “Westie lung” is a condition that affects the lungs and very slowly inhibits their function.
The condition sets on slowly, usually taking a year or more to develop. It usually affects middle age and senior Westies. Although the symptoms of fibrosis can be treated to give your pooch a better quality of life, sadly, it will worsen with time and there is no cure.
Other than skin complaints, most health conditions only affect a small percentage of the West Highland White Terrier pup-ulation. This means that most dogs are paw-fectly healthy.
Westies are hardy and surprisingly sturdy little dogs too, so with a healthy diet and daily exercise your pooch should hopefully stay fit as a fiddle.
How to groom a West Highland White Terrier
Hand-stripping a Westie
Ideally, a West Highland White Terrier grooming regime should include having their coat hand-stripped by a groomer every few months. However, not every Westie can have their coat stripped.
This is because ideally, a dog being stripped should have harsher, wiry hair, but some lines of Westie have been bred to have softer, silkier hair. Silky hair cannot be stripped easily because it is hard to grip and can hurt the dog when pulled.
If a dog has the wiry quality of fur that makes it suitable for hand-stripping, the experience should never hurt the dog and even seems enjoyable.
Hand stripping is a really useful grooming technique for breeds like the Westie or the Border Terrier because it removes the dead fur that they struggle to shed, and it encourages the following fur to grow back thicker and with the right texture.
The Westie club has a detailed guide on when and how to hand-strip a Westie.
How often should you brush a Westie?
You will need to dedicate a fair amount of time to brush your Westie during the week. If you keep their fur long, it is advised that you brush them a few times a week to help keep their fur in good condition.
If your pooch has softer and silkier fur than average, you will need to spend more time brushing them to make sure that there are no mats or tangles in their fur.
Westies need to have their hair clipped several times a year. If you are grooming your own dog, be aware that Westies are prone to showing clipper lines in their coat so it’s im-paw-tent to always follow the direction that their fur grows.
A West Highland White Terrier’s haircut will tend to have short back and sides, while the fur on their head is left long.
Your Westie’s haircut could be a “Westie Cut”, with the undercoat stripped and their back and sides clipped and blended into the furnishings. (The long hair on their belly.) The hair on their head will be left longer and rounded. Most Westie haircuts follow this style, and a Westie show haircut is similar but not cut as short.
Some Westie owners opt for a puppy cut, which is short all over but the hair on the head is kept long. It is very easy to maintain and gives your pooch a bright, youthful look.
Depending on the groom, you might leave the long fur on your Westie’s sides so they keep their elegant skirt, or have it clipped to prevent tangles and reduce the need for brushing.
A West Highland White Terrier might need a lot more trips to the groomer than other dogs because their fur grows out quickly and you might need to have them clipped every other month to maintain a short hairstyle.
You might need to do a little trimming between visits to the groomer just to help to keep your pup happy and hygienic.
This might include trimming the fur around their feet and eyes. You do need to make sure the fur around your pooch’s eyes is kept trimmed and tidy to stop any hair going in their eyes and irritating them or blocking their vision.
How often should I bathe my Westie?
Although you might want to wash your Westie regularly to maintain that gorgeous glowing white coat, bathing your dog too often can dry out their fur and skin and cause itching and irritation.
It’s generally advised that most dogs are only washed once every 1 to 3 months, or any time they desperately need it, like when they come home caked in mud or have started to smell.
Most Westie owners tend to bathe their dogs once a month at most, but they usually leave it around 6 weeks between washes.
If your pup has gotten muddy on a walk, they don’t always need a full bath. Sometimes spot-cleaning them with some warm water is all you need to get off the grime. Similarly, you’d be surprised at how clean a pooch can be after just a towel rub. Otherwise, go with the “wait and see” method.
Most dogs, including Westies, will re-appear astonishingly clean after an hour in their bed. This is because double-coats have a quality that helps to shed dirt once it is dry, that and your dog will spend time cleaning themselves too.
Do Westies shed?
Westies do shed, but not a lot, which can be surprising for a double-coated breed of dog. Westies are very low shedding as far as dogs go. Plus, regular brushing and hand-stripping will help to minimise any shedding even further.
A West Highland Terrier has a long outer coat that can be around 5cm long, as well as a softer and fluffier undercoat.
They drop very little fur and the strands that do come loose tend to stay within their coat and not all over the floor. Regular brushing and grooming will also help to keep their shedding to a minimum, as well as helping to keep your pooch clean and tangle-free.
Are West Highland White Terriers hypoallergenic?
West Highland White Terriers are considered a hypoallergenic dog breed. This is because they do not shed a lot of fur, and their long, silky tresses tend to retain any dander that they drop rather than it falling free and spreading around the house.
It is im-paw-tent to note that no dog breed is 100% hypoallergenic and all breeds of dog have the paw-tential to trigger allergies as they will still shed some hair and dander.
If you have an allergy to dogs or fur, you should spend time with a breed you are interested in to see if they are suitable for you and save the heartache of buying or adopting a pooch only to find you aren’t compatible.
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