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Eva Maria Kramer, Animal Photography
You may recognize the Westie from his long-running stint as the mascot for Cesar pet food, but he’s more than just a cute face. A true terrier, he’s a fast and clever hunter, plus his lighthearted nature makes for a pet who’s always game for some fun.
Legend has it that the West Highland White Terrier was bred for his distinctive snowy fur so he could be spotted while hunting fox and other brown- and red-coated creatures.
Few breeds “clean up” as stylishly as the West Highland White Terrier, evidenced by the iconic image of a well-coifed Westie sporting a smart, tartan-patterned rain slicker. He’s comfortable in the city, the suburbs, and the country. At their best, Westies are energetic, people-oriented dogs, beloved and admired for their bright white coats and shiny, shoe-button eyes.
Although the Westie may look cuddly, he’s too busy to hang out in your lap for very long. Thanks to his high energy levels, he lives to dig, run, and pounce on small, furry creatures. Some carnage is inevitable when living with these terriers — hunting is hard wired in Westies, and training can’t reverse the instinct. Fans say that Westies are independent dogs with a lot of energy; detractors may use words like “noisy” and “destructive.” Either can be true, so it’s essential to find a breeder who strives to produce dogs with stable, happy temperaments.
These dogs need plenty of exercise and playtime, as well as proper training to eradicate nuisance barking and digging. Westies are well suited for competing in American Kennel Club earthdog trials; they also excel at agility, obedience, flyball, and other canine sports. These activities stimulate his bright mind and channel his boundless energy, keeping him from excavating your garden or driving neighbors crazy with incessant barking.
The West Highland White Terrier’s rough coat sheds, but it can be minimized with weekly brushing or combing and occasional trips to a professional groomer. Most pet Westies are kept clipped, but the proper breed look requires hand-stripping, a tedious job that involves removing the entire dead coat in small amounts with a special tool.
Westies love to be around people, so they need to live indoors, as members of the family — otherwise they’re likely to turn into noisy, destructive, and very unhappy dogs.
The short-legged terriers of Scotland are now recognized as the Scottish, Skye, Cairn, Dandie Dinmont, and West Highland White Terriers. They all undoubtedly descend from the same roots — and were all once valued for their small-game hunting skills.
Originally, their coats came in a bevy of colors, including black, red, and cream. Colonel Edward Donald Malcolm of Poltalloch, Argyllshire, Scotland, is generally credited with breeding the white dogs true. The story goes that, in 1860, one of his reddish dogs was mistaken for a fox and shot. Malcolm decided, on the spot, to breed only for white dogs that could be readily identified in the field.
Today, the West Highland White Terrier ranks 34th among the breeds registered by the American Kennel Club, down from 30th in 2000.
The Westie is full of life, spunk, and devotion. He also possesses a stubborn streak — although he doesn’t generally look for a fight, he wouldn’t be caught dead walking away from one, either. Westies are generally easy to train, but only when they feel like it. With proper, consistent guidance, it’s possible to teach the Westie not to bark or dig excessively, which the breed is prone to do when bored.
This cocky guy loves people, but he’s not a lap dog. He’s a bit restless and likes to be on the move, so be prepared to live with an independent thinker who can be noisy and destructive if his natural terrier instincts aren’t channeled effectively through training and exercise. Overall health permitting, keep him busy with dog sports — agility, flyball, obedience, and rally — and test his natural terrier ability in earthdog trials.
Westies are too short to climb onto kitchen counters, but they are not above jumping onto chairs to reach a table laden with food. Westies are sexually mature at six to 12 months, so start training your puppy early. Even at eight weeks old, a Westie is capable of soaking up everything you teach him. If possible, get him into puppy kindergarten class by the time he is 12 weeks old, and socialize, socialize, socialize. However, be aware that many puppy training classes require certain vaccines (like kennel cough) to be up to date, and many veterinarians recommend limited exposure to other dogs and public places until puppy vaccines (including rabies, distemper and parvovirus) have been completed. In lieu of formal training, you can begin training your puppy at home and socializing him among family and friends until puppy vaccines are completed.
The perfect Westie doesn’t spring fully formed from the whelping box — he’s a product of his background and breeding. So look for a puppy whose parents have nice personalities, and who has been well socialized from early puppyhood.
Westies are prone to a host of health problems. A few will be discussed here. According to a 2007 survey conducted by the West Highland White Terrier Club of America (WHWTCA), the following conditions commonly affect Westies: atopic dermatitis (inhalant allergies affecting the skin), luxating patellae (knee caps that pop out of normal position), aggression, Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease (a disease involving the hip joint), dry eye, Addison’s disease, white shaker dog syndrome, pulmonary fibrosis, juvenile cataracts, and craniomandibular osteopathy (a disease that causes bony deformity of the jaw in puppies).
There are currently no screening tests for some of these conditions, including craniomandibular osteopathy; allergies and other serious skin conditions; Legg-Calve-Perthes disease; and copper hepatopathy, a defect of the liver that allows elevated levels of copper to build up in the system.
Westies can also develop idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, or Westie lung disease. This condition is believed to be genetic, but its true cause is unknown. In affected dogs, the air sacs and connective tissues of the lungs become inflamed and scarred, which causes serious, progressive breathing problems.
Westies with white shaker dog syndrome tend to develop signs between six months and three years of age. Dogs with this condition can begin trembling uncontrollably, especially when they try to move or get up. In some cases, long term medication is required.
Westies are also at increased risk of developing transitional cell carcinoma (TCC) of the urinary bladder.
Not all of these conditions are detectable in a growing puppy, and it can be hard to predict whether an animal will be free of these maladies, which is why you must find a reputable breeder who is committed to breeding the healthiest animals possible. They should be able to produce independent certification that the parents of the dog (and grandparents, etc.) have been screened for genetic defects and deemed healthy for breeding. That’s where health registries come in.
The WHWTCA participates in a program operated by the Canine Health Information Center (CHIC). Before a Westie can be listed in the CHIC database, the WHWTCA requires that they receive a clearance from the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF), a patella evaluation from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA), and a hip evaluation. Eye exams are recommended annually until the dog is at least eight years old, so check that the puppy’s parents’ results are from the past year. Anyone can search the OFA and CHIC websites to see if a puppy’s parents are listed.
A top breeder will also have documentation proving that a puppy’s parents have been tested for a brain and spinal column disease known as globoid cell leukodystrophy through the Jefferson Medical College Department of Neurology, and pyruvate kinase deficiency through the University of Pennsylvania. This enzyme disorder causes a potentially fatal form of anemia.
Westies have a double coat with a soft, furry undercoat and a stiffer outer coat. The tough texture of the outer coat doesn’t retain dirt, keeping the dog clean and protecting the undercoat. It’s necessary to comb or brush all the way through to the undercoat to prevent mats. In general, the undercoat doesn’t grow in until the Westie is at least a year old; in some cases, it can even take up to five years. It’s easy to keep the Westie white: When he’s a puppy, brush his coat once a week, using a pin brush or comb. Adults require daily brushing.
The Westie only sheds a tiny bit, but his coat must be cut. Some people choose to use electric clippers themselves to save money and further bond with their Westie, while others prefer the services of a professional groomer. (If cost is a concern, grooming equipment can be purchased for the cost of a few professional visits.)
Depending on the Westie, a clipper can either make the coat softer or wavy; a hand-stripped Westie has a wirier coat. Stripping is a time-consuming process in which dead hairs are plucked by hand, a technique typically only done by owners of show dogs. Most professional groomers aren’t willing to spend much time doing it. If you’d like to learn how to strip a Westie’s coat, ask your breeder.
The rest is basic care: Trim his nails as needed, usually every week or two. And brush his teeth daily with a vet-approved pet toothpaste for overall health and fresh breath.
Whether you want to go with a breeder or get your dog from a shelter or rescue, here are some things to keep in mind.
Selecting a respected breeder is a great way to find the right puppy. Reputable breeders will welcome questions about temperament and health clearances, as well as explain the history of the breed and what kind of puppy makes for a good pet. Don’t be shy about describing exactly what you’re looking for in a dog — breeders interact with their puppies daily and can make accurate recommendations once they know something about your lifestyle and personality.
Lots of breeders have websites, so how can you tell who’s good and who’s not? Red flags to look out for: multiple litters on the premises, puppies always being available, having your choice of any puppy, and being offered the option to pay online with a credit card. Breeders who sell puppies at a lower price “without papers” are unethical and should be reported to the American Kennel Club. You should also bear in mind that buying a puppy from a website that offers to ship the dog immediately can be a risky venture — it leaves you no recourse if what you get isn’t exactly what you expected.
To start your search, check out the website of the West Highland White Terrier Club of America and choose a breeder who has agreed to abide by the club’s code of ethics, which specifies that members not place puppies prior to 12 weeks of age, prohibits the sale of puppies through pet stores, and calls for the breeder to obtain recommended health clearances before breeding.
Whether you’re planning to get your new best friend from a breeder, a pet store, or another source, don’t forget that old adage “let the buyer beware”. Disreputable breeders and facilities that deal with puppy mills can be hard to distinguish from reliable operations. There’s no 100% guaranteed way to make sure you’ll never purchase a sick puppy, but researching the breed (so you know what to expect), checking out the facility (to identify unhealthy conditions or sick animals), and asking the right questions can reduce the chances of heading into a disastrous situation. And don’t forget to ask your veterinarian, who can often refer you to a reputable breeder, breed rescue organization, or other reliable source for healthy puppies.
The cost of a Westie puppy varies depending on the breeder’s locale, the sex of the puppy, the titles that the puppy’s parents have, and whether the puppy is best suited for the show ring or a pet home. Puppies should be temperament tested, vetted, dewormed, and socialized to give them a healthy, confident start in life. If you put as much effort into researching your puppy as you would when buying a new car, it will save you money in the long run.
Before you decide to buy a puppy, consider whether an adult Westie may better suit your lifestyle. Puppies are loads of fun, but they require a good deal of time and effort before they grow up to be the dog of your dreams. An adult may already have some training, and he’ll probably be less active, destructive, and demanding than a puppy. With an adult Westie, you also know exactly what you’re getting in terms of personality and health. If you’re interested in acquiring an older dog, ask breeders about purchasing a retired show dog or an adult Westie who needs a new home.
There are many great options available if you want to adopt a dog from an animal shelter or breed rescue organization. Here is how to get started.
1. Use the Web
Sites like Petfinder.com and Adopt-a-Pet.com can have you searching for a Westie in your area in no time flat. The site allows you to be very specific in your requests (housetraining status, for example) or very general (all the Westies available on Petfinder across the country). AnimalShelter.org can help you find animal rescue groups in your area. Also some local newspapers have “pets looking for homes” sections you can review.
Social media is another great way to find a dog. Post on your Facebook page that you are looking for a specific breed so that your entire community can be your eyes and ears.
2. Reach Out to Local Experts
Start talking with all the pet pros in your area about your desire for a Westie. That includes vets, dog walkers, and groomers. When someone has to make the tough decision to give up a dog, that person will often ask her own trusted network for recommendations.
3. Talk to Breed Rescue
Most people who love Westies love all Westies. That’s why breed clubs have rescue organizations devoted to taking care of homeless dogs. The West Highland White Terrier Club of America’s rescue network can help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. You can also search online for other Westie rescues in your area.
The great thing about breed rescue groups is that they tend to be very upfront about any health conditions the dogs may have and are a valuable resource for advice. They also often offer fostering opportunities so, with training, you could bring a Westie home with you to see what the experience is like.
4. Key Questions to Ask
You now know the things to discuss with a breeder, but there are also questions you should discuss with shelter or rescue group staff or volunteers before you bring home a dog. These include:
What is his energy level?
How is he around other animals?
How does he respond to shelter workers, visitors, and children?
What is his personality like?
What is his age?
Is he housetrained?
Has he ever bitten or hurt anyone that they know of?
Are there any known health issues?
Wherever you acquire your Westie, make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. Petfinder offers an Adopters Bill of Rights that helps you understand what you can consider normal and appropriate when you get a dog from a shelter. In states with “puppy lemon laws,” be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.
Puppy or adult, take your Westie to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot problems, and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues.
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