he West Highland White Terrier, commonly known as the Westie, is a Scottish breed of dog with a distinctive white coat. The modern breed is descended from a number of breeding programes of white terriers in Scotland prior to the 20th century. Edward Donald Malcolm, 16th Laird of Poltalloch, is credited with the creation of the modern breed from his Poltalloch Terrier, but did not want to be known as such. Other related breeds included George Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll’s Roseneath Terrier and Dr. Americ Edwin Flaxman’s Pittenweem Terriers. The breeds of small white scottish terriers were given its modern name for the first time in 1908, with recognition by major kennel clubs occurring around the same time. The breed remains popular in the UK and is in the top third of all breeds in the USA since the 1960s. It has been featured in television and film including in Hamish Macbeth and in advertising by companies such as Cesar dog food and Scottish whisky Black & White.
The breed is a small terrier, although with longer legs than other scottish breeds of terrier. It has a white double coat of fur which fills out the dog’s face giving it a rounded appearance. The breed can be good with children, but will not tolerate rough handling. The Westie is an active breed, but are social with a high prey drive. Several breed specific and non-specific health issues appear in the breed including a condition in young dogs nicknamed “westie jaw” which causes an overgrowth of bone in the jaw of the dog. It is also prone to skin disorders, with a breed specific condition called Hyperplastic Dermatosis occurring.
A black and white photo of three terriers. They appear thinner than a West Highland White Terrier and their bodies are longer.
Three Pittenweem Terriers, photographed in 1899
Scottish white terriers were recorded as early as during the reign of James I of England (VI of Scotland), who reigned between 1567 and 1625. The king ordered that a dozen terriers be procured from Argyll to be presented to the Kingdom of France as a gift. Sandy and brindle coloured dogs were seen as hardier than those of other colours, and white dogs were seen as being weak. At various times during the breed’s existence, it has been considered a white offshoot of both the Scottish Terrier and the Cairn Terrier breeds.
There were also reports of a ship from the Spanish Armada being wrecked on the island of Skye in 1588. This ship carried white spanish dogs, whose descendants were kept distinct from other breeds by Clan Donald, including the families of the Chiefs. Other families on Skye preserved both white and sandy coloured dogs. One such family was the Clan MacLeod, and it was reported by their descendants that at least two Chiefs kept white terriers, including “The Wicked Man” Norman MacLeod, and his grandson Norman who became Chief after his death.
George Campbell, 8th Duke of Argyll, bred a breed of white Scottish terriers known as the “Roseneath Terrier”. Another breed of white Scottish terriers also appeared at this point, with Dr. Americ Edwin Flaxman from Fife developing his line of “Pittenweem Terriers” out of a female Scottish Terrier which produced white offspring. The dog seemed to produce these white puppies regardless of the sire to which it was bred, and after drowning over twenty of these offspring, he came upon the theory that it was an ancient trait of the Scottish Terrier that was trying to re-appear. He rededicated his breeding program to produce white Scottish Terriers with the aim of restoring it to the same stature as the dark coloured breed. Flaxman is credited with classes being added to dog shows for white Scottish Terriers towards the end of the 19th century.
A black and white photograph of a small white terrier, looking very similar to the modern breed.
A West Highland White Terrier, photographed in 1915
The person most closely associated with developing the modern breed of West Highland White Terrier is Edward Donald Malcolm, 16th Laird of Poltalloch. Malcolm owned terriers used to work game, the story told is that a reddish-brown terrier was mistaken for a fox and shot. Following this Malcolm decided to develop a white terrier breed, which became known as the “Poltalloch Terrier”. The first generation of Poltallochs had sandy coloured coats, and had already developed prick ears which is a trait seen later in the modern breed. It is unknown if the Poltalloch Terriers and Pittenweem Terriers were interbred. In 1903 Malcolm declared that he didn’t want to be known as the creator of the breed and insisted that his breed of white terriers was renamed. The term “West Highland White Terrier” first appears in Otters and Otter Hunting by L.C.R. Cameron, published in 1908.
The first breed club was set up in 1904; Niall Campbell, 10th Duke of Argyll, was the society’s first president. A second club was subsequently set up, with the Countess of Aberdeen as Chairman. Edward Malcolm succeeded the Countess as the club’s second chairman. Kennel Club recognition followed in 1907, and the breed appeared at Crufts for the first time in the same year. The Westie was imported into the United States in 1907-1908, when Robert Goelet imported Ch. Kiltie and Ch. Rumpus Glenmohr. Initially it was also known at the time as the Roseneath Terrier, and the Roseneath Terrier Club was recognised by the American Kennel Club in 1908. The club was renamed during the following year to the West Highland White Terrier Club of America. The breed spent the period that immediately followed as being “in vogue”, becoming popular almost immediately upon its arrival in the USA. Canadian Kennel Club recognition followed in 1909. Until 1924 in the UK, Westie pedigrees were allowed to have Cairn and Scottish Terriers in them. By the time of Malcolm’s death in 1930, a stable type had appeared with prick ears, a white coat and a short back.
A white terrier photographed from the side, it has longer hair than normal which reaches down nearly as far as it’s feet. The hair on it’s head is puffed up.
A Westie in a modern show-cut
In major conformation shows, the breed have been equally successful on both sides of the Atlantic. The first member of the breed to win a show championship was Ch. Morvan in 1905, owned by Colin Young. The dog was registered at the time as a Scottish Terrier, and won the title at the Scottish Kennel Club show at the age of seven months. Because the breed wasn’t yet recognised independently, the championship title wasn’t retained when the dog was re-registered as a West Highland White Terrier. The first win at a major show came at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 1942 when Constance Winant’s Ch. Wolvey Pattern of Edgerstoune won the title of Best in Show. The same title was taken by Barbara Worcester’s Ch. Elfinbrook Simon in 1962. It took a further fourteen years before the breed took its first Best in Show title at Crufts, the UK’s major dog show. Ch. Dianthus Buttons, owned by Kath Newstead and Dorothy Taylor, took the title for the breed in 1976. The most recent win for the breed at a major show was again at Crufts, this time in 1990 with the Best in Show title going to Derek Tattersall’s Ch. Olac Moon Pilot.
The popularity of the breed during the early 20th century was such that dogs were being exchanged for hundreds of guineas. As of 2010, the Westie is the third most popular breed of terrier in the UK, with 5,361 puppies registered with the Kennel Club. However, this is a decrease in numbers since 2001, when it was the most popular terrier breed, with 11,019 new dogs registered. The breed’s position in the United States is more stable with it remaining in the top third of all breeds since around 1960. It was ranked 30th most popular in 2001, based on registrations with the American Kennel Club, which has varied around the 30s in the decade since, with it ranked 34th in 2010
In popular culture
The titular character in the BBC Scotland produced television series Hamish Macbeth owned a Westie named “Wee Jock”. The appearance of a Westie in the role of Greyfriars Bobby in the 2006 film The Adventures of Greyfriars Bobby caused protests from the Skye Terrier breed club, who complained about filmmakers using an incorrect dog breed. Black & White whisky have used both Scottish Terriers and Westies in their advertisements, and the breed is used as the mascot of dog food Cesar.
A white Scottish type of terrier faces the camera, with a round furry face.
An adult West Highland White Terrier
Commonly, Westies have bright, deep-set, almond-shaped eyes that are dark in colour. Its ears are small, pointed, and erect. Members of the breed typically weigh between 15 and 20 pounds (6.8 and 9.1 kg), and the average height is between 10–11 inches (25–28 cm) at the withers. The body should be shorter than the height of the dog at the shoulder; its legs are typically longer than those of other Scottish terrier breeds.
It also has a deep chest, muscular limbs, a black nose, a short and a closely fitted jaw with “scissors” bite (lower canines locked in front of upper canines, upper incisors locked over lower incisors). The Westie’s paws are slightly turned out in order to give it better grip than flat footed breeds when it climbs on rocky surfaces. In young puppies, the nose and footpads have pink markings, which slowly turn black as it ages.
It has a soft, dense, thick undercoat and a rough outer coat, which can grow to about 2 inches (5.1 cm) long. The fur fills out the face to give a rounded appearance. As it develops into adults, its coarse outer coat is normally removed by either ‘hand-stripping’, especially for dog-showing, or otherwise clipping.
The temperament of the West Highland White Terrier can vary greatly, with some being friendly towards children whilst others prefer solitude. It will not tolerate rough handling such as a child pulling on its ears, and can be both food and toy possessive. Members of the breed are normally independent, assured and self confident and can make good watchdogs. It is a loyal breed that bonds with its owners, but is often always on the move requiring a fair deal of exercise. Westies are highly social and are the most friendly and jolly of all the Scottish breeds of terrier.
It is a hardy breed, and can be stubborn leading to issues with training. A Westie may need to have its training refreshed on occasion during its lifetime. Having a typical terrier prey drive, it tends to be highly interested in toys especially chasing balls. It does retain the instincts of an earth-dog, including inquisitive and investigative traits, as well as natural instincts to both bark and dig holes. It is ranked 47th in Stanley Coren’s The Intelligence of Dogs.
Two white terrier puppies stand next to each other. They appear less furry than the adults of their breed, and the pinkness inside the ears is evident.
Two Westie puppies
US owner surveys put the average lifespan of a Westie at 12 to 16 years, and some beyond that while the average litter size is between three and five puppies.
There are breed predispositions to conditions found across many dog breeds, such as abdominal hernias. Westie puppies may be affected by Craniomandibular osteopathy, a disease also known “lion jaw”, and is sometimes also referred to as “westie jaw”. The disease is an autosomal recessive condition and so a puppy can only be affected by it if both its parents are carriers of the faulty gene. The condition appears across many breeds, including several different types of terrier, as well as other unrelated breeds such as the Great Dane. It typically appears in dogs under a year old, and can cause problems for the dog to chew or swallow food. Radiographic testing can be conducted to diagnose the condition, in which the bones around the jaw thicken; additionally the blood may show increased calcium levels and enzyme levels. The condition often stops progressing by the time the dog is a year old, and in some cases can recede. It is normally treated with anti-inflammatory medications, and the feeding of soft foods. In some cases, tube feeding may be necessary. However, if the animal still cannot eat and is in uncontrolled pain, then euthanasia may be the only medical option remaining.
The breed is prone to skin disorders. About a quarter of Westies surveyed are affected by atopic dermatitis, a heritable chronic allergic skin condition. A higher proportion of males are affected compared to females. There is an uncommon but severe breed-specific skin condition that may affect West Highland White Terriers affecting both juveniles and adults dogs. This condition is called Hyperplastic Dermatosis. Affected dogs can suffer from red hyperpigmentation, lichenification and hair loss. In the initial stages, this condition can be misdiagnosed as allergies or less serious forms of dermatitis.
An inherited genetic problem that exists in the breed is globoid cell leukodystrophy. It is not breed specific, and can appear in Cairn Terriers and other breeds including Beagles and Pomeranians. It is a neurological disease where the dog lacks an enzyme called galactosylceramidase. The symptoms are noticeable as the puppy develops, and can be identified by the age of 30 weeks. Affected dogs will have tremors, weakness in its muscles and difficulties in walking. Symptoms will slowly increase until limb paralysis begins to occur. Due to it being a hereditary condition, it is recommended for owners to avoid breeding affected animals in order to eliminate it from the breed. Another genetic condition that affects the breed is “White dog shaker syndrome”. As this condition is most commonly found in Westies and in Maltese, the condition was originally thought to be connected to the genes for white coats, however the same condition has since been found in other non-white breeds including the Yorkshire Terrier and the Dachshund. The condition typically develops over one to three days resulting in tremors of the head and limbs, ataxia and hypermetria. Affected males and females can be affected for different lengths of time, with symptoms in females lasting for between four to six weeks, while males can be affected the rest of its life.
Other less common conditions which appear in the breed include hydroxyglutaric aciduria, which is where there are elevated levels of alpha-Hydroxyglutaric acid in the dog’s urine, blood plasma and spinal fluid. It can cause seizures, muscle stiffness and ataxia, but is more commonly found in Staffordshire Bull Terriers. A degeneration of the hip-joint, known as Legg–Calvé–Perthes syndrome also occurs to the breed. However the chances of this condition occurring are much higher in some other breeds, such as the Australian Shepherd or the Miniature Pincher. The breed is also one of the least likely to be affected by a luxating patella, where the knee cap slips out of place.