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Breeder Buzzwords – The West Highland White Terrier

Breeders of purebred dogs speak a language all their own. Wherever they gather, at dog shows, seminars or in chat rooms, words and phrases are used that have very narrow definitions. Their usage makes it difficult for a novice to fully participate in the conversation, and all but impossible for the general public to follow along.

Much of the breeder’s language is derived from domesticated livestock or veterinary science. Veterans who’ve spent a lifetime perfecting their own family of purebreds use agricultural and medical terms with confidence. When noted breed authorities get together, the dialog that results can effortlessly span the broadest topics, although the words spoken will often have the narrowest of definitions.

Those words are quite often derived from the breed standards. As guide for both breeder and judge, the standard describes those characteristics of make, shape and behavior that define a breed, distinguishing it from all the rest. Distinctions between breeds can be subtle, so standards use very specific words to illustrate singular traits. These buzzwords become part of every breeder’s dog show dialect, guiding both conversations with peers and decisions made in the whelping box.

The West Highland White Terrier. Photo by Dan Sayers.

“To insist upon the type, general activity and character of the Highlander par excellence of Scottish breeds is everyone’s duty…” So wrote Holland Buckley in his book, “The West Highland White Terrier,” published in 1911 by the Illustrated Kennel News Co. Ltd. of London. The breed had only recently been given its familiar name, recognized as such by the Kennel Club in 1907 and by the AKC in 1909. Originally registered in America as the Roseneath Terrier, the little white “earth-dogges” had been known by various names, including Potalloch and White Scottish Terriers. The current name was chosen for its clarity and distinguished the Westie from its many Scottish cousins.

By the turn of the last century, Cairn, Skye, Scottish and Dandie Dinmont Terriers were being bred as distinct breeds. Scotland’s short-legged Terriers ranged in color from black to red to cream to white, and the darker colors were generally accepted as possessing a superior hardiness. Although each descends from the same foundation stock, white dogs were known to exist in the highlands by the 16th century.

More than three centuries later, Col. Edward Donald Malcolm is credited with devoting himself to breeding the white color exclusively. Legend has it that he mistook one of his darker-colored dogs for a fox one day – and shot it. Thereafter, he bred the light-colored dogs for their visibility as well as for their working abilities in an unforgiving environment. Whether the breed’s genesis is fact or fiction is immaterial, for an established type with short back, prick ears, erect tail and white coat was known by the early years of the last century. By the 1930s, dog fanciers on both sides of the Atlantic had begun to embrace the little white Westie and, within three decades, demand for the breed was at an all-time high. The breed’s popularity continues today, thanks in no small part to its bright white color.

Charming and attractive, the West Highland White Terrier is as determined and devoted as any Terrier. Quick and tenacious outdoors, this friendly little package becomes a delightful, if independent, companion at the end of a busy day.

Held in High Esteem

The West Highland White Terrier is a typically insistent ratter, but one with an alert and cheerful disposition. According to the General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard, a Westie is expected to exhibit “good showmanship” and possess “no small amount of self-esteem.” This little dandy is an extrovert’s extrovert, assertive, as a Terrier should be, yet cheerful in demonstrating that assertiveness. The standard describes the breed’s temperament as “alert, gay, courageous and self-reliant, but friendly.” An amiable showman by nature, this busybody lives life center stage, where it is sure to be seen – and heard.

Piercing the Soul

The expression of the Westie is every bit as delightful as its disposition. This is one book that can be judged by its cover.

With its head enhanced to present a rounded appearance, the rather broad and slightly domed skull tapers gradually toward eyes that are “widely set apart,” according to the standard. The eyes are described as “medium in size, almond-shaped, dark brown in color, deep set, sharp and intelligent.” These qualities combine to look out at the world “from under heavy eyebrows,” giving the breed its requisite “piercing look.” The contrast of the dark eye color – with black eye rims – against the white coat helps to create the penetrating expression.

What’s Up Doc?

“Never docked” is how the breed standard insists the tail of the Westie be presented. Although a natural tail is nothing unusual for a short-legged Terrier from Scotland, having one shaped like an inverted vegetable is a peculiarity mentioned only in the Westie’s breed standard. Thick at its base, the correct tail tapers towards its end, giving it a carrot shape. It stands erect, “as straight as possible,” and is never so long as to extend “above the top of the skull,” according to the standard.

A Westie tail should be “carried gaily but not curled over the back,” the breed standard dictates. The desired shape is that of a carrot on a stick, and not one that is dangling!


Of course, a West Highland White Terrier is white in color. However, as any artist or house painter can attest, there are as many variations of white as there are Scottish tartans. Although a “pure” white coat color is most desired – and heavy wheaten color is faulty – there’s no need to wash away the wee bit of yellow that can appear on the tips of the hair running along the length of the Westie’s spine.

Correct coat texture is essential in this working Terrier, and the white coat should not be soft, silky or have a tendency to curl. “Furnishings may be somewhat softer and longer,” according to the breed standard “but should never give the appearance of fluff.”

Written by

Dan Sayers started “in dogs” through a chance encounter with a Springer Spaniel in 1980. A student of dogs ever since, he’s shown Spaniels and Hounds in the conformation ring and breeds Irish Water Spaniels under the Quiet Storm prefix. A dog lover with a passion for the creative arts, Dan has worked as a freelance writer, photographer and illustrator for many years. His feature articles and columns have appeared in Dogs in Review, Dog World and the AKC Gazette, and his design work has appeared in dozens of publications in North America and abroad. An interest in all things “dog” brought Dan to Best In Show Daily, where he gets to work with the most dynamic group of fanciers every day. He lives in Merchantville, New Jersey, with his partner, Rudy Raya, Irish Water Spaniel, Kurre, and the memory of Oscar, a once-in-a-lifetime Sussex Spaniel.
  • Karl Shreiner April 22, 2012 at 4:18 PM

    Now it must be time for the Feature Article on the true ambassador of the highlands….the Scottish Terrier. Westies are outstanding scotland oriented terriers….but are they Scotties? Nay Lad.

    • Dan Sayers
      Dan Sayers April 23, 2012 at 7:04 AM

      Stay tuned. The Scottie shall have its day!

  • Dawn Martin April 23, 2012 at 3:08 AM

    Well done – sure sums up the essence of the Westie personality and expression

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