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West Highland White Terrier – Purpose of a Breed Standard

West Highland White Terrier gaiting side photo

Breeding, showing, and judging dogs is a game of sorts. To play any game well, participants must know the rules and understand the concepts. For instance, in the game of Bridge, if you are not dealt a good hand, you will not win a grand slam. If you are dealt a good hand, you must know how to bid and play that hand to win that grand slam. So, to play the dog show “game” well, participants must plan to put in the time to study, learn, and understand the rules of the game and how it is played.

A Breed Standard provides the basic rules of the game. The Standard of any breed is the detailed description of the ideal specimen of that breed. The West Highland White Terrier is a relatively old breed, with the establishment of the breed in the US in 1909. The AKC was established in the late 1800s, with the first Gazette published in 1889. The earliest printed Standard of the breed was written circa 1911 in England, and it has not changed substantially since that time.

west highland white terrier breed standard
© Joni’s Photography


Form Follows Function

To understand the Standard, one must always keep in mind the purpose and function of the breed. The form and temperament of West Highland White Terriers must follow the function of a working terrier in the Scottish Highlands. When in doubt of the interpretation of the Standard, always go back to the original function of the breed: HOW it worked; WHERE it worked; and the CONDITIONS of its work.

Colonel Malcolm of Poltalloch, one of the early founders of the breed, wrote, “Let me sum up qualities which I consider indispensable—Courage; Bite and Grip; Activity; Strength; Lightness; Brains; Coat as described. In fact, a multum in parvo. (A great deal in a small space.) Now all these qualities are to be found in the pure West Highland Terrier.

west highland white terrier breed standard


Proper Evaluation Requires a Discerning Eye

It is necessary to develop an eye for a correct Westie. The challenges to developing your eye are numerous:


Misunderstanding the Standard

Learn the terminology used to describe canine structure. Know the meaning and historical significance of adjectives that are particular to the breed. Also, refer to additional treatises on the breed.

west highland white terrier breed standard


Limited Access to Historical and Important Books

There are many books and articles which help one learn about the significance of certain traits. For example, John Marvin, a well-known chronicler of the Westie, described the unique Westie gait in his book, The Complete West Highland White Terrier.

“Too often one sees stilted, tight movement with short, rapid steps devoid of drive rather than the free, powerful movement that is necessary. A Highlander that has the good lay-back of shoulder and proper rear angulation has a gait that is absolutely distinctive, a gait that approaches a jaunty bounce.

Note: Jaunty is defined as “freely, easily, airily, lively, and full of play; having or expressing a lively, cheerful, and self-confident manner.

west highland white terrier breed standard


A Lack of Good Examples

There must be excellent examples of the breed for you to see, examine, and study so that your eye becomes accustomed to what is correct.


Sensual Compensation & Kennel Blindness

It is natural to become accustomed to what one sees, whether it is the small group of Westies at local shows or those running around in your yard. It is the natural response of our senses to adapt and accept what is normally around us. For example, someone who eschews the use of salt finds normally salted food to be overly salty, or someone who has hearing loss starts wearing hearing aids and finds every little sound they now hear distracting and intrusive.


Winner Infatuation

Don’t be caught up believing that if a dog is winning, it must be good, and if it wins a lot, it must be really good and is “the dog to breed to.” Over the course of ten to thirty years, fads of style and presentation come and go. When choosing breeding stock or puppies, evaluate the dog, his ancestors, and progeny—not his winning record.


Geographical Limitations

It is important to see dogs from a variety of areas in the country. Dogs are more often bred to others in their geographical region, so many times there is more diversity between dogs of different geographical regions. At any given time, one region may have overall better quality than others.


Excessive Grooming

Coated breeds have a big advantage in the show ring! Masterful grooming (along with good handling) can cover up a multitude of faults. Building up the neck and dips in the topline, ratting a head to make it look large and broad, or hair left on or removed from shoulders and legs all cover up faults and enhance virtues to improve the overall picture. One must do enough hands-on examinations of a variety of dogs to learn how to “see” through the hair to find the real dog underneath.

west highland white terrier breed standard
© Steve Surfman

There must be excellent examples of the breed for you to see, examine, and study so that your eye becomes accustomed to what is correct.

Robert Widden, longtime breeder-judge, said it best:

A good West Highland White Terrier of true type and sound structure should be able to show himself unassisted and evidence the qualities and spirit specific of the breed. That a good dog can be made to look better is the art of grooming and handling. That an unsound dog can be made to look good is the art of deception. The future quality of the breed depends on [you], our judges, and your ability to know the difference.

I would add that it also depends on breeders to recognize and be wary of deception.

By knowing and understanding the Breed Standard, you will have the rules and guidance to make good decisions.


Balance, Balance, Balance

Overall correctness and soundness trumps one, favorite trait. I think we each have one or two Westie traits that are most endearing to us. A large, broad head with piercing eyes… a jaunty (remember what that means?) gait moving around the house with an aura of self-importance… a level topline with well-set-on tail carried erectly. These are all important and contribute to a high-quality Westie. But having one special trait or missing one does not make a Westie better or worse than the others. A balance of better than average traits must all come together to make a high-quality, winning Westie.

west highland white terrier breed standard


Goal of Breeders & Exhibitors

Several years ago, I overheard a top terrier handler complaining that some of the dogs he was showing for clients were not of very good quality. Another professional replied, “Well, you show them, make them champions, and they take them home and breed them!

Handlers (owner or professional) groom and show the dogs. Judges pick the winners. But, in the end, breeders decide which puppies to keep and show, and breeders decide who to breed to whom. Breeders need to become educated to avoid that sort of mistake. Breeders are ultimately responsible for the quality of our breed.

west highland white terrier breed standard
© Patricia Ray

Successful judges, breeders, and exhibitors are continuously learning and honing their skills. They reread the Standard regularly. They discuss the finer points with other breeders who consistently produce good specimens and whose dogs perform well in serious competition. They attend seminars on Westies as well as Cairns and Scotties. They arrive at shows early and stay late. They watch dogs and handlers in the ring, even from other Groups. They learn sound movement from watching some of the non-coated breeds. They watch the top handlers; most of what they do in the ring with a dog is for a reason, not accidental.

west highland white terrier breed standard

If you can evaluate dogs because you truly know what a Westie is supposed to be, you can set yourself on the path to breeding better dogs and presenting them, or having them presented well in the show ring. By knowing and understanding the Breed Standard, you will have the rules and guidance to make good decisions.


west highland white terrier breed standard


West Highland White Terrier – Purpose of a Breed Standard

Featured photo: © LLOVALLDesign

Revised from an article by Ms. Sanders which appeared in the West Highland White Terrier Club of America 2020 Yearbook.


West Highland White Terrier Breed Magazine

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Read and learn more about the loyal West Highland White Terrier dog breed with articles and information in our West Highland White Terrier Breed Magazine.


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