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How Smart Are Westies? History, Training & Intelligence

Kathryn Copeland

By Kathryn Copeland

west highland white terrier dog standing on grass

The West Highland White Terrier, affectionately known as the Westie, is unmistakable in appearance: The white coats, short yet sturdy bodies, and inquisitive head tilt are all hallmarks of these adorable yet feisty terriers. But are they as smart as they are cute?

Westies are intelligent little dogs and have the famous stubbornness and independence that all terriers are prone to.

Keep reading if you want to learn more about the Westie’s intelligence.

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How Is Dog Intelligence Measured?

Measuring intelligence is no easy feat, but Dr. Stanley Coren, Ph.D.1, a neuropsychological researcher and canine expert, did just that. Dr. Coren is the author of “The Intelligence of Dogs,” in which he consulted with 200 dog-obedience judges for their expert opinions on which dogs were the most intelligent.

The primary means for determining breed intelligence was based on if the dog could learn a new command or trick in fewer than five repetitions. The faster the dog learned the trick, the higher their intelligence was ranked.

How often a dog obeyed the command was also factored in. Therefore, the more often the dog obeyed, the higher they ranked in intelligence.

west highland white terrier dog standing outdoors
Image Credit: YAN WEN, Shutterstock

What Are the Smartest Dog Breeds?

These are the top dogs that were able to obey known commands at least 95% of the time and understood new commands in fewer than five repetitions.

How Does the Westie Rank in Intelligence?

Unfortunately, the Westie didn’t rank all that well; they were placed in the 88th position. Dogs that ranked 63rd to 100 could learn a new command after 25 to 40 repetitions and were only about 50% successful in obeying a known command on the first try. This implies that the Westie has average intelligence. But Dr. Coren believed that 51% of a dog’s intelligence comes from their genetics, and the other 49% is environmental circumstances.

Also, there are three kinds of canine intelligence that can be measured: instinctive, adaptive, and working/obedience. For the results of the tests, Dr. Coren only measured working/obedience intelligence, particularly because that’s how dogs relate to humans. This means the intelligence tests were skewed in favor of dogs with a strong work ethic, like the Border Collie, which is in the number-one spot.

Terriers are notorious for being stubborn and independent, so it should come as no surprise that they rank poorly in working/obedience tests. These dogs have minds of their own, and they typically decide whether they are interested in obeying a command.

west highland white terrier dog
Image Credit: rebeccaashworth, Shutterstock

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What About the Other Forms of Canine Intelligence?

Let’s now look at the adaptive and instinctive aspects of canine intelligence and how they relate to the Westie.

Instinctive Intelligence

Instinctive intelligence is a dog’s instincts or natural traits bred into the dog by humans. Every dog breed was bred for specific jobs, whether it was the Border Collie for shepherding or the Shih Tzu for warming royal laps.

The West Highland White Terrier hails from the Scottish Highlands and was bred specifically to eradicate rats invading grain storages. There are quite several terrier breeds that were bred in Scotland for this purpose, including the Skye, Cairn, Scottish, and Dandie Dinmont.

Since Westies were bred as ratters, those instincts are still there. To this day, these dogs have a strong prey drive, and while they aren’t used for hunting rodents that often these days, they will still attempt to chase down small animals.

Those instincts are strong, so it can be said that the Westie has strong instinctive intelligence.

Adaptive Intelligence

Adaptive intelligence is how a dog learns social skills and problem-solving on their own. For example, if your dog understands how you’re feeling by your facial expression or excels at finding hidden treats, these are examples of adaptive intelligence.

This type of intelligence can vary between dogs, and since it is such an individual kind of intelligence, it is difficult to measure. It’s quite likely that most Westies excel at adaptive intelligence, but this isn’t a certainty.

West Highland White Terrier dog on grass
Image Credit: BIGANDT.COM, Shutterstock

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How You Can Make Your Westie Smarter

If you want to ensure that your Westie is as smart as possible, try following these tips.

  • Socialization: You should socialize your Westie from a young age, but if you’ve adopted an adult, it is never too late to socialize them. Your dog should be exposed to new experiences and places and meet new people and animals. This type of learning can add to their intelligence.
  • Reward: Every time you catch your Westie doing something clever, give them plenty of praise and a few treats.
  • Training: You should do this for any dog, but the more training your dog receives, the smarter they will be.
  • Puzzle toys: You can purchase or make your own puzzle toys. Giving your Westie toys that require thinking to figure out is a great way to ensure that they get enough mental stimulation to stay sharp!
  • Advanced training: Don’t stop training your dog after the basics. Give them new challenges, and train them with more advanced tricks. You can also sign them up for sporting events, where they can really use their instincts!
  • Exercise: While running around doesn’t sound like something that can make a dog smarter, the Westie is an energetic dog that needs a great deal of physical exercise. Without a physical or mental outlet, they will become bored and destructive.

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While the Westie ranks 88th with average intelligence in the working/obedience test, they are far from average dogs! In fact, just because they aren’t always obedient doesn’t make them any less intelligent than dogs like the Border Collie. It might even make them smarter in some ways, as they are capable of thinking independently.

Westies are excellent companions for the right families. They need owners who know how to train stubborn breeds with patience and positive reinforcement. But Westies are confident, clever, and affectionate, and you won’t regret bringing one home!

Featured Image Credit: Nixx Photography, Shutterstock

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