West Highland Terriers: The dogs that are clever, funny and inquisitive, with an irresistibly smiley demeanour and a skip in their step

West Highland Terriers are one of the most instantly recognisable breeds of dog in Britain, not least because of their starring role as the face of Cesar dog food. Here's what you need to know about these irresistibly clever and funny dogs.

Cheeky, funny, intelligent and full of spirit, West Highland terriers — or Westies, as they’re universally known — are dogs with bags of character. And sometimes to a fault, as we found out when we ran a competition last year to find the naughtiest dog in Britain.

Ted, a Westie from Warwickshire owned by Alice-Kate Dyer, was very nearly the overall champion — beaten only by a Jack Russell who managed to call the armed police while eating a telephone. Ted’s crime didn’t require diplomacy to smooth things over with a SWAT team, but it was the next closest thing, as Victoria Marston wrote in the article:

‘Ted’s family, returning from an evening out the night before Christmas Eve, would have been forgiven for thinking they had been burgled or, perhaps, visited by the Grinch. In fact, the small dog — never one to let his diminutive stature stand in the way of the amount of havoc he might be able to cause — had found his way into the room containing the Christmas tree, gifts and food.

‘The result could only be described as carnage, with every present unwrapped — and given a good chewing — and not a bauble, biscuit, satsuma or walnut left intact. Ted shall be forever known as the dog who ate Christmas.’

Such antics are hinted at in the Kennel Club’s description of the breed, referring to them as ‘possessed of no small amount of self-esteem with a varminty appearance’ — you can’t help but feel the pang of personal experience in those words.

Lachie Stewart is another Westie owner who can testity to the cheekiness of these dogs. His current Westie is Nostie, who is the latest in a string of white West Highland White terriers who have been in the life of the Scottish architect since he was 10, when his parents acquired a pedigree named Heather Bell.

Five-year-old Nostie ran up a huge veterinary bill after she was run over, but the resultant hip full of titanium hasn’t stopped her chasing seagulls — including over the side of a boat — and thoroughly enjoying every family outing.

Nostie the West Highland Terrier. Here’s hoping he doesn’t manage to let the handbrake off…

‘It’s extraordinary how they’re all so similar in their mannerisms — there are certain things that they all do,’ Lachie told Country Life’s Kate Green recently.

‘It’s the way they look at you, their pricked ears, their smiley demeanour, the little skip in their walk and the way their head goes on one side when you say a particular combination of words.

‘Nostie likes to look out of the window in the car, she always knows when a bath is imminent and disappears and, when she’s excited about an outing, she does a grand-prix circuit of the house — they’ve all done the same things.’

The West Highland White terrier has the healthiest population of the Scottish five, with 824 puppies registered in the first half of 2020, and 1,556 in 2019. A smiley-faced Westie with an impossibly snowy coat is the face of Cesar dog food, but the breed has a tougher history.

Some hunting men thought the white colour signified cowardice, but this was firmly disproved in the 19th century by the 8th Duke of Argyll — the breed was once known as the Roseneath terrier after his estate — and his contemporary, the 16th laird of Poltalloch, who wanted a white terrier that showed up in the heather and couldn’t be mistaken for a fox and accidentally shot.

What you need to know about owning a Westie

Prospective owners should be aware of that, for the adorably cute dog of the adverts isn’t always what they might imagine. Sheila Cleland’s 1995 book about Westies — quoted at length on the West Highland Terrier Club of Englan’ds website — says as much.

‘There are many pictures of pretty, white, small dogs looking like Westies which are depicted in advertisements, in books and on television,’ the book warns, ‘But these do not convey the character of the breed… The Westie is foremost a terrier, bred to chase and hunt, to work underground out of sight and hearing of its owner, and therefore, dependent on its own brain and ingenuity . This produces a dog with an independent spirit, and inquisitive nature and an active body…

‘Although they can be very determined, they do like to please their owners, and so much depends on early training forming a good relationship with your dog.’

For the same reasons, Sheila recommends Westies for experienced dog owners and suggests a little caution for those with small children — but bought from a reliable, licensed breeder, trained well and made to realise that the owner is ‘top of the pack’, they make wonderful pets.