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January 01, 2004

Breed Profile: Westie

By: Kim Johnson

A big dog personality trapped inside a little dog’s body.

That’s the overriding reason many dog enthusiasts are drawn to the spunky, outgoing West Highland White Terrier, more commonly known as the “Westie.”

It’s that terrier attitude: a little dog that has the personality of a big dog,” said Laura Stafford, founder and president of the Wisconsin Westie Rescue organization, based in the Appleton, Wis. area. “Just about every Westie that comes into my home – they have no problem with my Rotweillers.

"Some of them (Westies) will boss the Rotweillers around. My little Westie, Kelpie, bosses around the 125-pound Rotweiller. That’s the Westie’s personality…just always happy and friendly and outgoing,” Stafford said.

The short, compact Westie has always been known as an “earth dog” because of its low-to-to the ground stature, ready to confront and battle any vermin in its site. A typical Westie usually tops out at seven to 11 inches for dogs, 10 inches for bitches. And with its  white coat, Westies are sure to wear a bit of dirt and grim as they tussle and tug with playmates. And others.

“They just keep a good level of energy,” said Joan Graber, a long-time Westie breeder and judge from Middleton, Wis. whose been showing Westies since 1962. “Because they’re a terrier, if they can see squirrels or cats or anything outside, you’re going to have trouble getting them to stop barking – they’re going to want to go and get them.”

The Westie energy level is something that will stay with them throughout most of their life span of 14 to 16 years.

“People have to remember they are a Terrier. They are an active dog,” Graber said. “They really want to be with people. If you’re looking for a puppy that’s going to just curl up in your lap, don’t choose a Terrier. They’re a fairly active dog – not destructive or ‘hyper-hyper.’ They will be active well into what’s considered middle-age for other dogs.”

“A five year old Westie may be acting like it’s a two year old. That’s a Westie,” she said.

That energy level can be a hindrance for some families and owners not expecting that much “get up and go” from a little creature.

“People go into a pet store, and they see this three pound ball of fur – that first year of raising a Westie is very difficult,” Stafford said. “They’re very energetic and into everything.”

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel, most of the time.

“Once they get to be a year old, it gets a lot easier,” Stafford said. “They’re just so curious and like to be into everything.”

Any out-of-control Westie with aggression issues should be a major concern for owners. Such aggression is unusual for the Westies.

“The problem that we’re seeing in (the) rescue (organization) a lot is aggression from the puppy mill dogs.  That aggression isn’t something that’s supposed to be in our breed at all,” Stafford said.

Graber echoed Stafford’s point.

“The Westie should not have a ‘yappy-snappy’ temperament,’” Graber said. “Today, with a lot of commercial/backyard breeds, that can be a problem.

Both Westie experts agreed on the importance of finding a well-known, reputable breeder when considering the addition of a Westie into the family. Be sure to check the breeder’s background thoroughly, they recommended.

“It’s really important that they (potential Westie owners) choose a reputable breeder to avoid the health and behavioral problems,” Stafford said. “Just because a dog has AKA papers doesn’t mean it’s from a reputable breeder. If they buy the puppy because they feel sorry for it, that’s not something they should do. They should just walk away.”

Westies can have some hereditary problems,  as well, Graber said.

Stafford said skin allergies in Westies can be very common, too. Consider the factor of spending additional dollars to possibly treat this ailment when looking at the Westie, she said.

Another factor in choosing to bring a Westie home is its interaction with children. Westies and children don’t always mixed, Graber and Stafford warned.

Sometimes they do not get along with young children – like 5 (years old) or younger,” Stafford said. “Westies are pretty tolerant, but when you have a little kid pulling at the tail or ears, (the Westies) will only put up with so much. They’re not going to be as tolerant of a young child as, say, a Labrador or a Golden Retriever.”

“We recommend you wait until the children are older – 8 years or over,” she said. “Some rescue (groups) require the kids to be 12” for a terrier to be placed in the respective home.

Those owners who decide they can no longer handle a Westie for whatever reason  – living situation, its high-energy level, health concerns, or possible aggression – usually go to the local humane society to put the dog up for adoption, Stafford said. If the animal isn’t placed by the shelter, sometimes Stafford’s group is contacted to assist in “life and death situations.”

“We get a lot of Westies, for instance when there’s a divorce in the family. Or the owners are going to a nursing home or senior citizens community,” Stafford said.

Stafford first looked into forming the Wisconsin Westie Rescue group after having volunteered for a number of other breed organizations in the state. “I saw a need – there wasn’t anyone covering this breed,” Stafford said.

Since the group was formed in 1999, more than 75 Westies have been connected with foster families who are experienced Westie owners located throughout the state.

“Believe me, we don’t want to be busy. (If we’re busy) that means there are Westies out there that need new homes. The fewer the better,” Stafford said.

So just what sold these two Westie enthusiasts on this unique breed of dog?

“I had grown up with Westies, and that was always just my breed,” Stafford said.

Stafford shows her 4 1/2-year-old Kelpie and has done some confirmation, obedience, and agility activities.

Her involvement with the rescue group doesn’t cancel out her appreciation for other types of dogs. She and her husband own two Rotweillers. She’s shown the Rotweillers – Roma and Forest – but they are now both retired.

Another big selling point for Stafford on the Westies?

“I like they’re a non-shedding dog,” she said.

Graber, whose passion with dogs started in the early 1950s, was first drawn to Collies. Something changed in 1960 when she spotted two Westies inside a kennel at a dog show.

The small creatures were poking their paws through the crate’s wire door, and there was just something that caught Graber’s attention.

“I liked their temperament. With Collies, I didn’t want a breed that was going to be ‘sharp.’ I didn’t want to worry about temperament. And I knew I wanted a smaller breed. I didn’t want to do any docking of tails. The Westies just fit.”

More information on the Wisconsin Westies Rescue group and details on adoptions can be found at www.petfinder.com/shelters/WI31.html.

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