by Nic Vanek
W'ere not the owners of a breed that dates back thousands of years, we are the owners of a breed that is quite young. From the time the West Highland White Terrier was first accepted until today there have many attempts to change or modify the Westie to suit American tastes. One of the best resources to actually see the changes in our particular breed is an extraordinary book by Gilda Malik called Claudia Lea Phelps American Sponsor of the West Highland White Terrier. Gilda Malik authored a book about Claudia Lea Phelps, whom she credits with the introduction of the West Highland into the United States.
Before I discuss or address what I think the changes in our breed are from those first imports to what we currently see in our show ring, it should be noted that most American Breeders of Westies either do not realize what our Westie ancestors looked like or do not want to acknowledge the beginnings of our breed because that look of the early Westie is not as pretty as what we are currently breeding. In many instances what we are breeding today is a completely different dog from what was bred back in the early 1900's.
Ms. Malik reprints a page from an issue of the London Times dated 1910, a page that exhibits the photographs of 10 English Champions of the day. Three of which Ms. Phelps imported to the United States. The differences from the Westie Champions of 1910 and today's West Highland Champions are quite visible in those photographs.
Probably the most major change to our breed would be the height of the dog and the length of the dog. Our Breed standard was modified about thirty years ago to define an acceptable height for a West Highland. The standard prior to that time was based on the English standard for the breed. Males were acceptable at 12 inches, females at 11 and there were no real clear statements about how much of a deviation from the height was acceptable. Today our standard calls for a Westie male to be 11" and a female to be 10" with an allowance for a what is identified as a "slight deviation" in the height.
Of course the terminology "slight deviation" is open to individual interpretation. Some believe an full inch is a slight deviation, and others would define "a slight deviation" in fractions of an inch. Using out current standard one would find that an 11" male should then have a back that is about 10 to 10 ½" long from the lay back to the base of the tail. When you examine the backs of the photographs of the English Champions from 1910 you'll see that backs on Westies were considerably much longer then what American breeders find acceptable today. It's clear that back in 1910 Westie backs were probably a good one to two inches longer than the length of the leg.
The Westie tail is a hallmark of our breed. Today it is clearly stated that a Westie tail should never appear, when erect or when the dog is properly stacked; to never go over the top of the skull. We have in the United States put a great deal of emphasis on the length of the tail, and the shorter the better. Yet when looking at the photographs of our ancestors the size of a Westie tail is quite considerable. The importance of the Westie tail is simple, Westies being "go to ground dogs" were extracted from underground burrows by their tails. We also put a great deal of emphasis on the set of the tail. Breeders prefer them squarely and highly set and yet when looking at our ancestors it's clear that tail sets were slightly lower than what most Westie Breeders desire today and a great deal more substantial than what we now desire.
Another important change in our breed has been the head and muzzles. The Westie head of our ancestors was not the broad skull we clearly prize today. The skull of our ancestors was a more narrow skull with a muzzle that becomes what many would call snipey. That snipey appearance of the muzzle and the more narrow skull is what helped give our Westies a certain look that was called "foxy". Our standard currently calls for a muzzle to be no more than two thirds the length of the skull. Today's breeders prefer an even shorter muzzle and many do not find a tapered muzzle to be acceptable. So what we end up with is a short square muzzle and a great deal of tooth loss.
The true hallmark of our breed is the headpiece. The headpiece has always been an important factor for this particular breed because of the fact that these are varmint dogs. These little hunters were responsible for keeping barns, sheds, and farm out buildings clear of farm predators. A Westie head is strong. Teeth should be large for the dog. The nose black and large. Pigment around the eyes needs to be black. Ears should be small and squarely balanced on the head with the skin of the inner ear a pinkish grey. Westie breeders prefer a skull that is as broad as it is deep and we want the skull to fill a cupped palm. The other problem with the more squared muzzle versus the more snipey muzzle is the hunting factor. As a Westie does go to ground to hunt it's prey it needs to be able to get it's muzzle into narrow crevices, a square muzzle will not allow for those types of maneuvers; whereas the more snipey muzzle will. The change in the muzzle not only has impacted the teeth in our breed I personally think it impacts the ability of the Westie to go to ground to perform the tasks for which it was bred.
When we look at the Westies that were first imported to the United States in the early 1900's and compare them to what we see being shown in a exhibition ring today you can see what to the observer may be subtle changes, but to the breeder we see dramatic changes.
But however you look at this breed we have not been able to modify or change the one trait about this dog that endears it to so many of us, and that's the temperament. Whereas these dogs were scrappers in the barn, they are still scrappers in the fields. Whereas these dogs are strong in body and heart, they remain so, for the one thing we have not modified is the temperament.
They will continue to look at you when you call them, with that look on there face that says "you can't possibly be talking to me . ".
Whitefire West Highlands