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The West Highland White Terrier Dog: Its History and Description

West Highland Terrier running in park

These dogs, popularly known as Westies, are basically terriers and possess most of this breed’s characteristics. Hence, this dog is not really a lapdog – and if that is what you are seeking, this is not the right dog for you. Though they look extremely cuddly since they are impeccably white and small; but they don’t like to be held or handled for long periods of time.

What Goes Into the Making of this Spirited Little Animal?

According to history, the West Highland White Terrier’s origin is credited to two different people in Scotland, that of Colonel Donald Malcolm (Argyll) around the 1620s and the eighth Duke of Argyll around the 1800s. What we see today is the result of more than a century of selective breeding to ensure these dogs have the perfect genetic make-up. They were specifically bred for hunting foxes and rats (vermin in general) and this is how the Westie got the habit of digging in the courtyard.

The West Highland Terrier is always bright white. The color used to help when it was a hunting dog because it was easily distinguishable and hence, not shot at (confused with the prey) by the hunters (of fox and rabbits). Owing to its origin, this dog is known for its tenacity, aggression, and energy. It has a single-minded approach when it hunts, even today. This dog comes with a lot of spirit and makes for an excellent watchdog. Their best pastime when not playing is sleeping; you will observe that a West Highland White Terrier almost invariably chooses secluded places to sleep, and needs to have his back towards a wall, or something solid.


This dog has two coats of fur – one dense and wiry, and the other one, soft and fluffy. The coat was meant for its protection – so the prey was not able to hold it down. Today, the advantage of its coat is that being dry it does not need a bath too often. Grooming involves normal daily brushing and trimming of hair wherever you feel that it will affect its hygiene – around the mouth, around the ears, and also around the eyes, though the latter is for cosmetic purposes.

The West Highland White Terrier is normally a healthy breed, the most common health problem you will encounter with this Scottish Terrier is skin problems. It is not known exactly why, but this dog is highly prone to all types of skin allergies and infections, and even cancer. Other common diseases are Perthes disease that affects the hip, liver problems, hernia, and jawbone calcifications. In spite of all this, this dog’s life expectancy is on average more than 15 years.

They love to be exercised, but since it is extremely energetic indoors as well, it will not hanker for the outdoors. They are very playful and need many naps during the day. This dog makes a wonderful companion pet because it gets along very easily with children, elder people and all other pet animals at home – including cats.

Its instinct of hunting is very much alive, and if it has the opportunity, it would love to rush after a rat and catch it. They will happily run after squirrels when out walking, and no amount of recall will dissuade them otherwise. This trait is owed to the history and origin of the West Highland Terrier, which shows it is basically a hunting dog.

History and Origin of the West Highland White Terrier

The West Highland Terrier has a very interesting history – some say legend – regarding how their breed came into existence. Initially, these dogs were specifically bred to hunt small animals such as foxes, otters, hares and vermin. The ancestors of the Scottie, Cairn and Dandie Dinmont Terriers are the same as that of this breed. There are historical records that say the King of England (James I) had requested for these white-haired dogs around 1620 from Argyleshire, Scotland, and hence the popularity of the breed.

There are other legends, which say that Colonel Edward Donald Malcolm who is attributed with the making of this breed, had inadvertently shot his reddish-colored dog while on a hunting trip mistaking it for a fox. Hence, from then on, he bred only white terriers so such an accident would never happen again. Though he himself was never interested to get the credit as the originator, he went down in history as the first person who bred these immaculate white dogs in around 1620.

The Evolution of the Name of West Highland Terrier

The Colonel bred these dogs as he vowed and you have the first generation West Highland White Terrier known as the Poltalloch Terriers, dated about the 1620s. Around the 19th century, the eighth Duke of Argyll took a lot of interest in these dogs and took the responsibility to breed them. In his honor, these dogs were then renamed Roseneath Terriers.

The name of the White Scottish Terrier was bestowed on them when they entered a dog show at the beginning of the 19th Century when they were classified for the first time under the name of West Highland Terrier. They were well received by the people and the breed became popular very fast. The breed was officially registered and recognized in 1909, just two years after the dog show where they were showcased for the first time. Since then these dogs have been known as the West Highland White Terriers.

Physically, these dogs are small and compact. However, by nature and temperament, they are still hunting dogs who love to chase, dig and uncover prey. Do not choose this breed if you are buying the West Highland Terrier for a lapdog pet. They actually do not like to be picked up often or kept on the lap. The temperament of these dogs is what gave them the name of, “small body-big attitude”. They do not like to be carried, mishandled and cannot resist seeing something scurrying around in front of their face. The West Highland Terrier temperament belies its size as this dog can be very aggressive if required. They might not be suited for a family with very young children and if any member of the family is elderly, it would be wise to think twice before buying these dogs.

West Highland Terrier Profile

Size: Small
Height: About 28 cm (11 inches)
Weight: 7 – 10 kg (15 – 22 lb)
Life Span: 13 years
Grooming: Medium
Exercise: Undemanding
Feeding: Easy
Temperament: Active & friendly
Country of Origin: Scotland
AKC Group: Terrier
Other Names: Westie

General Appearance: Sturdy, confident and compact.
Colour: Always pure white.
Coat: The outer coat is wiry, flat, straight and about 5cm (2 inches) in length. The undercoat is dense, soft and short.
Tail: Straight, carried high and about 13-15 cm (5-6 in) in length.
Ears: Small, erect and covered with short, velvety hair.
Body: The body is compact with a deep chest and level back. The ribs are well arched and the shoulders are sloping.

Temperament: Happy, affectionate, extroverted, agile, alert and lively.