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West Highland Terrier

Breed of the Week: West Highland Terrier (Video)

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This week’s Breed of the Week post doesn’t come because I met a dog, or because I had a conversation with anyone at the dog park, or because I read something interesting. I know, you’re all in shock! This week, I’m talking about the cute little West Highland Terrier, or Westie, because I was doing some blog maintenance here on Simply for Dogs. While doing all that good behind-the-scenes maintenance, I somehow stumbled over an old post where I talked about the best dog foods for Westies – and then I realized that I’d never featured this breed on our favorite weekly column! For shame, Ash. So today, let’s talk about the lovable Westie and his big dog attitude.

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History

The West Highland Terrier is known for being a very smart-looking little dog, and you’ll often see them depicted as wearing plaid (that’s tartan to those across the pond) and strolling around a city environment. That’s an interest shift from the origins of this breed! People’s penchant for dressing them in tartan likely has to do with their ancestral home of Scotland. Like the name suggests, West Highland Terriers come from the Highlands of Scotland. Quite a few small terrier breeds came out of this area, like the Skye Terrier and the Cairn Terrier – and all of these dogs shared a common bloodline that was bred for a very specific task: hunting small game.

The Westie’s most striking feature is its white coat, and there was a very good reason that breeders of old bred Westies for their coats. Many small terriers back then were hunting small game that were about the same size as themselves, such as foxes. There’s a story that in 1860, a man was out hunting for fox with a terrier that had a red coat, mistook the dog for the fox, and shot. That man’s name was Colonel Edward Malcolm, and he is credited as having been the first breeder to create the Westie standard white coat. He decided that it would be much less heartbreaking for him if he could always identify his dog, and that’s what led to the breed we know today.

The West Highland Terrier now ranks somewhere near the high middle on the AKC popularity range, but they’ve begun dropping a lot in popularity over the last decade. Let’s find out why.

Personality

The Westie is a terrier through and through, and if you don’t know what that means, you may want to do some more research before getting one of these dogs. Here’s the thing about terriers: On one hand, they are smart, funny, busy, interesting, energetic, lively, and entertaining. On the other hand, those qualities can often be translated as stubborn, mischievous, noisy, or even destructive. The fact is that terriers just possess a lot of personality and energy, and they need a dog owner who is going to help them channel that energy into a positive outlet. One thing to know about Westies in particular is that the hunting instinct has never been bred out of these dogs. They will still want to chase after small game like rodents, moles, and so on. Don’t be surprised to find your Westie happily slaying any rabbits that wander into your yard.

It is true that these dogs can develop a nuisance habit of barking and digging, so you’ll want to have a plan in place for how you intend to exercise them and keep them occupied. Westies really like being involved. They are busybodies who enjoy knowing what’s going on. Toys that cater to their prey drive, keep the moving, and have a mentally challenging element, will be very useful for Westies. The Pet Qwerks Babble Ball is a good choice to start with – it even has a Westie on the package!

With the right training, though, a Westie will definitely be a happy, exciting member of your family. They are loyal to their people, and they are very personable. You’ll definitely have a “character” on your hands with a Westie!

Appearance

The West Highland Terrier stands about 10 to 11 inches tall, and weighs between 15 and 22 pounds. Their coats are medium in length and very soft, thanks to the dense undercoat. And of course, a Westie is always snow white. These dogs look very cuddly, although they are typically too busy to sit in your lap for long. They have a short, carrot-shaped tail that tends to be held upright, and a rounded head with pointed, upright ears. Their eyes are very round and inquisitive, and they have short, though not flat, muzzles. These dogs have very powerful hind legs, which help them break into a sprint or jump with ease. The typical show look for a Westie is to have the coat around the face trimmed into a circular mane, but for a house pet, it’s common to see Westies with very short hair around the face.

Care and Grooming

West Highland Terriers need a good amount of exercise, far more than the average small dog. While they fit in just fine in an apartment or city lifestyle, you’ll need to be sure that you can take them for a good long walk, or visit a nearby dog park for lots of playtime. The best way to handle a Westie’s high energy level if you live in an urban area is to take them with you as much as you can. Let them focus their energy on walking with you around your city. They do have independent spirits, so they won’t mind you taking care of errands while they hang out on the leash. But don’t think that one walk a day will be enough for these dogs. In addition to teaching them to fetch a disc or play with a flirt pole at home, it’s also a great idea to give these dogs a job, such as entering them in lure coursing events, or something similar.

 

When it comes to grooming, you’ll typically find that Westies are very no-nonsense and easy to care for. If you like them to look like a show Westie, you’ll want to have their coat trimmed into the proper shape and maintained; but typically, you don’t have to really groom them. They aren’t prone to a ton of shedding or tangling. However, terriers do need a quick “stripping” with an undercoat rake about once a week or once every other week to remove dead hairs. This keeps the coat silky soft. If you love the pristine appearance of the white coat, you’ll want to find a tear stain remover, because they do tend to get stained around the eyes.

Westies do have fast-growing nails, so be sure you maintain a good weekly trim as needed, as well as a weekly dental care routine to ensure that they stay healthy. While you’re doing this, give each of their ears a quick inspection for excess wax, and remove any wax that you can see.

We’ve already covered the best foods for a Westie in the article that started me down this path, but as a general rule: choose a high quality dry dog food, and pay attention to serving sizes. Your Westie doesn’t need to be overfed.

Health

Unfortunately, the West Highland Terrier is a breed that is particularly prone to a variety of conditions. Some of these conditions do not have any screening tests designed for them, so it’s pretty much impossible to ensure that a Westie puppy will be totally healthy. Here are a few things that Westies have a tendency to develop:

  • Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, also called Westie Lung Disease: A genetic disease wherein inflamed connective tissue in the lungs causes breathing problems.
  • White Shaker Dog Syndrome: A strange disease that seems to affect white dogs exclusively, wherein the dog trembles uncontrollably when trying to move. It can be treated with medication.
  • Atopic Dermatitis, or skin allergies.
  • Luxating Patella, or a knee cap that tends to pop out of position.
  • Dry eyes
  • Addison’s disease
  • Juvenile cataracts
  • Legg-Calve-Perthes disease
  • Craniomandibular osteopathy: A disease that causes the jaw to be deformed.
  • Aggression
  • Bladder issues, particularly Transitional Cell Carcinoma, a type of cancer that affects the bladder.

As I said above, not all of these conditions can be detected via tests, so the best thing to do when buying a West Highland Terrier is to look to the parents and siblings from older litters. Their health issues will give you a clue about what you could be seeing in your own Westie in the future. This isn’t to say that your Westie won’t be healthy, either; just that there are many issues recorded as frequently plaguing this breed in particular.

Pets and Kids

When it comes to your kids, you don’t need to fear the Westie as long as he is well trained. Typically, even Westies who have aggressive behavioral problems are not aggressive towards people. They love being around their family, and they love being involved with what’s going on – so they are usually just fine hanging out with kids.

With other dogs, a Westie that is well trained will be a good companion. And while a Westie who was raised with cats or other small pets may be comfortable, be aware that a Westie is still pretty likely to treat animals smaller than him as prey. You may not want to introduce a Westie to your household if you have a free-roaming bunny or chinchilla, or if your cat is not dog friendly.

Is a Westie Right for You?

Reading all this, it can be hard to tell if a Westie is really a good choice for a dog. They sound like lots of fun, but they also sound like they’ll be a bit tricky to train. The right owner for a West Highland Terrier will be:

  • Someone comfortable training dogs who has lots of patience.
  • Someone who has an active, energetic lifestyle.
  • Someone with time to take a dog out for lots of exercise on a regular basis.
  • Someone who wants a dog that will be involved in their daily activities.
  • Someone who can comfortably afford regular vet visits to keep an eye on the dog’s health.
  • Someone who loves the funny antics of a confident, curious dog.

If that describes you, then you will likely be a great owner for a West Highland Terrier. These striking little pups are a lot of fun if you have the time to devote to their training, and their confident – even a little cocky – attitudes can help you feel like strutting your stuff as well.

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The Final Verdict

At the end of the day, I think the West Highland Terrier is a good example of how dogs are truly reflections of their owners. A Westie with a great owner is going to be such a fun friend. He’ll be interested in everything, and really fun to be around. More than likely he’ll know some cool tricks and regularly be the center of attention. But a Westie with an inattentive owner is going to be destructive and maybe even aggressive.

I also think the Westie is a good poster child for the fact that dogs, domesticated though they may be, are still animals with strong instincts. Even a well trained Westie is going to want to hunt down small prey and will be feistier than you could have imagined when they catch something.

My favorite thing about this breed is how much style and attitude they have. These dogs know that they look good, and they tend to act as though everyone in the room should recognize how cool they are. That’s an amusing attitude for such a small dog.

Now that I’ve had the chance to really dig into what makes this breed unique, I’m glad I did! While small dogs aren’t for me, I think a Westie is a good choice for someone who wants a small dog with a bit of a different personality from the usual small dog.

Sources:

http://www.vetstreet.com/dogs/west-highland-white-terrier#overview

http://www.akc.org/dog-breeds/west-highland-white-terrier/

About the Author Ash

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