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Westie Personality, Training & Grooming

West Highland White Terrier playing in the snow.

This article was originally published in Showsight Magazine, May 2014 issue.


Westie Personality, Training & Grooming

Hmmmm, that looks like a squirrel just out of my reach… unless… maybe… If I could just find something I can climb up on I could jump over the fence and once on the other side I can jump on that pesky little rascal. Hmmmm, no such luck; nobody left a chair, table, planter or anything which could help me. There is no place I can even get footholds to climb over. Wait, I have another plan. I will try the gate. Hmmmm, I see a little daylight under it, maybe I could dig a hole and that would let me at that little varmint. Wow, what fun it is to get my nails and feet in the good old soil. Watch out squirrel, here I come! Many Westies are thinkers and planners making them delightful companions—fun and entertaining to say the least.

They are very good trainers and can keep you on your toes. A Westie will know when you are planning to go somewhere, maybe by how you are walking around finding what you need to leave. Car keys are a dead giveaway. Those dogs will try everything in their power to manipulate you into inviting them along, such as assuming they are going and dance around at your feet, or if that doesn’t work they give you “guilt”, the poor-me look. Having said this, there are exceptions to the rule, so don’t think every Westie is manipulative and conniving, but in my experience which spans over 50 years of breeding, grooming, training and handling West Highland White Terriers, the ones worth their salt are just that, ever entertaining and the greatest companion. Westies are not generally a needy dog, meaning they don’t sulk and destroy things from panic when left.

They will try to talk you into taking them along, but once they realize their tricks didn’t work and you are out the door and down the driveway, they find their place of residence, some on the back of the sofa watching for squirrels out the window. I had a girl that loved TV and would watch that especially when her favorite ads came on, preferably something with action such as horses or animals doing their act. She could tell by the music starting the ad and she would come from anywhere in the house at a full run, skidding around the corners. Westies were bred by Scotsmen for hunting vermin of all shapes and sizes. You can read their history in various books about Westies. My favorites are Earthdog Ins & Outs by Jo Ann Frier-Murza and The New West Highland White Terrier by Daphne S. Gentry. Westies are hardy, focused on what interests them at the moment and loyal to the one they are with. Westies are adaptable to change and bore easily, something to keep in mind while housebreaking, encouraging performance activities such as agility, rally, earthdog, tracking and yes, even obedience.

They work for food, not for your approval. They love the one they are with, if that one has the treats. A Westie will always be nearby no matter what you are doing: showering, napping, watching TV, or at your computer, but not so much in your lap unless it is their idea. Again, this not every Westie, but I have found these to be the most prevalent features of their personality and what really endears them to people who want a dog that is somewhat independent and comedic. Westie males love the female humans and female Westies control the man in the family. Males are more apt to want to please and show more affection while females are wondering what is in it for them. Manipulative, charming and conniving little girls they are. Nothing is too good for them as far as daddy is concerned. Each breed of dog has certain characteristics which are appealing or not so appealing depending on the wants and needs of the person seeking a companion.

Perhaps you will extend the relationship beyond companionship to being partners in performance or even breed competition. By this I am referring to what motivates an individual to be interested in a Westie or a particular breed of dog. Often times the person has known someone who has a Westie or maybe grew up with Westies so are familiar with the breed. They have had personal experience, been up close and personal with Westies or maybe they have seen one on a commercial or in a car or a park and think they are oh so cute. And they are, “oh so cute”. A person or family may decide that the Westie is the dog they want. They then go in pursuit of finding a puppy which is “oh so cute”. Each and every dog in a breed will have certain characteristics which are associated with that breed. When researching a breed of dog, often times the person may have in mind that the “oh so cute” dog may be like a stuffed toy when in reality they were bred to hunt down and destroy vermin. Some Westies may not take kindly to being coddled and held tightly for more than a couple of minutes. Westies, on the whole, fit into the latter category, that of not being a “lap dog”.

Most of the time, Westies will love to be in your lap as long as it is their idea. As I said, it is in their nature to be very close to their person. No matter what you may be doing—sitting at the computer, watching TV, taking a walk or sleeping—your Westie will be close by. After you have your puppy and have decided to train it, the first thing to know is that your puppy is ever so smart and may be training you. Westies are fun dogs and you will get more out of a Westie if you understand how they think. They work for food and get bored easily, so give your Westie treats and make it fun and they will be more apt to do what it is you desire them to do. Most Terriers will chase anything that moves, so keep in mind that your dog must be kept on a lead or in a fenced area. They are quick and at times are deaf to the recall. If you use treats to get your puppy’s attention and teach them to come to the word you choose for their reward, you are more apt to get their attention when it is most needed, which can be vital in an emergency. I use the word “cookie” and try to keep cookies in my pocket at all times when with the dogs during potty breaks and for a walk. I don’t teach my puppies to lead by pulling or jerking them; I use the words “here” and “here puppy, cookie”. Soon that puppy is responding to “here” or “puppy” or “cookie”.

Any of those words will get their attention because there is always a reward. If you lie to them, they will not respect you and will soon ignore anything you ask them to do. Give a “Go potty” treat when the puppy goes potty. “Go Poo Poo” or “Go Pee Pee” are my two requests as soon as my puppies can be in their own area. When traveling and when I put them out in the morning, my dogs know they will always get a treat once they have done their job.

Activities for You & Your Westie

Speaking of training, there are many activities which you may enjoy with your dog. Hunting is one. Earthdog Tests and Barn Hunts are their favorite activities. Westies were bred to go to ground, so it is a natural thing for them to do. You can learn more about this from the breeder or club member in your area. Go online and find a Terrier club or Earthdog club or go for more information. Agility is another fun sport and dogs seem to love it providing it is made fun. Again, do not over train. A Westie is smart and if trained according to their individual character, will learn fast. If asked to repeat an exercise too many times the dog will think to itself, “Gee, I must be doing it wrong, so maybe I had better try another way. Oh look, there is something moving over there, I think I will take a closer look”. You will have lost their attention.

They are not Border Collies or Golden Retrievers and if the person from whom you are taking lessons trains those breeds, the instructor may expect your Westie to do as they do, but that will not be the case. My dogs and I love Rally because we like to do sports which are fun. Yes, you can be an over-achiever and want high scores, but I just like to pass the test. Obedience is just that and Westies are not obedient dogs; they are as explained above—smart, fun and full of themselves and love the life of a comedian, which is what endears a Westie to the people who have them. When listing sports for your Westie, we should not leave out Tracking. Sniffing is the way they retrieve information as to where other dogs, animals and people have been and even who might have sat in their favorite chair. A dog uses its nose constantly, especially when they are out for a walk. We call it reading the newspaper, because they are gathering information as to who, what and where have been at that spot and what direction they may have gone. It is truly amazing what a dog can tell by sniffing.

There are books which can help you learn more about all of these activities and you can find them through AKC or Amazon. There are other sports such as Fly Ball and Lure Coursing in which I have not participated myself so have no experience. More information about all of these activities and where they occur can be found on the American Kennel Club website,

Grooming Your Westie

Grooming is very important for dogs of all kinds for various reasons, health being one. When you bathe brush and comb your dog, you may find hidden problems such as ticks, tumors, a bite or weed penetration which can become infected. Bathing and drying will help to find such problems and if done correctly and with love and reassurance, your dog will be happy to have the attention. Understand that nobody likes water and air in their face, so take it easy when working near the head. Learn your dog’s tender spots and reassure them it is in their best interest that they allow you to do whatever it is you are doing. If the dog has tangles, work from the end of the tangle while holding the tangle securely to prevent pulling the skin. Brush it against your fingers and if necessary, use scissors or thinning shears to cut the tangle. The dog will accept the brush and comb if you are careful not to hurt them.

Having said that, there is the show dog which gets its hair stripped or plucked or pulled. Different terms are used by the persons doing the deed. Show grooming is a subject into and unto itself. If you are planning to learn to groom your own dog and you want your dog to look like the breed it is then you need to get the correct tools for the job. Grooming your pet will require a coat king, thinning shears, scissors and clippers. You can ask the breeder from whom you acquired the dog for lessons and what tools they may suggest. It is important to know what a well-groomed dog with correct conformation should resemble. You can do this by attending a dog show and taking pictures of the dogs during the grooming process and ask questions of the groomer. Now some handlers and owners are very busy at the shows, so it is important to ask the person who is working on the dog if they would mind if you watch or take pictures. Asking permission is very important and when you do, please realize that the person working on the dog will sometimes be under a timeline and may not be accepting of interruptions. Don’t take it personally and move on to someone who will have the time to visit.

Usually, it will be after they have shown the dog and they have come back from the ring following the competition. Breeder-Owner-Handlers are more apt to take the time with you so seek them out first. You can usually tell Breeder-Owner-Handlers by their set up (grooming area). Usually they will have only Westies and they won’t have as many dogs as the Professional All-Breed Handlers. Once you have your pictures, have them enlarged and place them on the wall where they are easily seen from your grooming table, which you have purchased at the show along with the grooming arm and noose. In addition, you will need a mirror where you can observe your dog as you remove the coat. Looking at the pictures you will note there are areas which are to be very short and others which are longer. The “jacket” is the top of the back. The “skirt” is the sides which are longer than the jacket. Leg coat is to be longer but shaped to make the dogs legs appear straight. Blending is the key word when grooming a Westie. Please do yourself a favor and get the Westie Illustrated Standard.

The Illustrated Standard will help you reference the correct type and conformation of the dog which you are learning to groom and if you have not already acquired a dog, you may be better informed when you visiting prospective breeders to find your new family member. Additional information can be obtained by finding a Breed Club, an All-breed club or an All Terrier Club in your vicinity. Most of the people participating in the various “Dog Sports” are willing and want to help people who are interested in learning more about the “Sport”. A little time and effort spent finding out about all of the activities will pay off with a better relationship with your dog and a lot of laughs, too. Just listen to his thoughts as you gather his lead or harness. ‘Hmmmm… I hear the rattle of my tracking harness. Forget Mr. Squirrel, I’ll get back to him later. Oh boy! Treats and the scent of the track. I can’t wait to find out what kind of treats I will earn today. Great outdoors, here I come! Oh Boy! Oh Boy!