West Highland Terriers are the small white dogs famous for their adorable head tilt. As cute as they are, are Westies also smart?
As dog owners, we all know that our dogs can do some pretty dumb things – whether we are willing to admit it or not.
On the other hand, all dog owners want to think that their dog is smart. Most are more than capable of giving you examples of why their dog is exceptional.
If you are a Westie owner, you’ve probably seen your dog do some things that seem really smart and other things that just make you shake your head.
So, are Westies smart dogs? Compared to other breeds, West Highland Terriers have average intelligence.
That answer might surprise you. In fact, most Westie owners will tell you that Westies are smart, but let me explain why Westies have average intelligence.
- Canine Intelligence
- Types of Dog Intelligence
- West Highland White Terrier Intelligence
- Are Dogs Smart?
- Comparing Dog Breeds
- Westies are Intelligent
- Are Westies Smart?
Experts have said that dogs have the intelligence level roughly equal to that of a human toddler 2 to 3 years old.
Like humans and all other animals, canine intelligence exists on a spectrum. That is to say that not all dogs are of equal intelligence, even dogs of the same breed.
However, there have been many studies done on breed intelligence over the years and some dog breeds consistently rank at the top. Border Collies are at the top of most lists, with Poodles usually close behind.
There are also some dog breeds that consistently rank toward the bottom of intelligence rankings. Sorry, Chihuahua owners.
One of the most famous studies of dog intelligence was conducted by Dr. Stanley Coren. He ranked dogs’ intelligence levels based on how quickly they could learn new commands and how well they were able to follow known commands.
Dr. Coren’s research eventually led to his popular book titled The Intelligence of Dogs.
Types of Dog Intelligence
According to Dr. Coren there are three different types of canine intelligence: instinctive intelligence, adaptive intelligence, and working and obedience intelligence.
Instinctive intelligence refers to a dog’s natural abilities and is closely tied to the breed. For example, Westies naturally have a strong prey drive and are adept at finding and catching mice and other rodents and small animals.
They use their instincts to sniff out and dig up vermin. No one has to teach them how to do it; hunting small prey is just something they instinctively know how to do.
Adoptive intelligence is a dog’s ability to solve problems. When a dog loses his favorite toy under the couch, how does he get it?
If the toy is out of reach of the dog’s mouth, a dog that uses his paws to get the toy is considered to have higher adoptive intelligence than a dog that continues to fruitlessly bite at the toy.
Working and obedience intelligence refers to a dog’s ability to learn from their owner and other humans. The most obvious example of learning from humans is the ability to learn commands.
Working and obedience intelligence is the easiest and most objective way to study dog intelligence and is therefore the basis of most studies on dog intelligence.
Dr. Coren’s rankings of dog breed intelligence are also based on working and obedience intelligence.
West Highland White Terrier Intelligence
Dr. Coren’s analysis ranked West Highland White Terriers as one of the top 100 most intelligent dog breeds. Westies were part of a group of dog breeds that Dr. Coren considered to be of average intelligence with the ability to learn new commands after 25 to 40 repetitions.
West Highland White Terriers were beat out by other terrier breeds including the Yorkshire Terrier, Airedale Terrier, Border Terrier, Manchester Terrier, Australian Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Cairn Terrier, Kerry Blue Terrier, Australian Silky Terrier, Norwich Terrier, Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier, Bedlington Terrier, and Fox Terrier.
There’s been some criticism of Dr. Coren’s rankings. Even Dr. Coren has pointed out that there’s more to intelligence than being able to learn new commands, but the rankings have generally been accepted as an accurate starting point.
Murphy, the Westie I grew up with, knew all the basic commands and a few more including: come, stay, sit, lay down, play dead, roll over, shake (give paw), and dance. She also knew several more words like “car,” “walk,” and “snack.”
She also displayed instinctive intelligence by doing what West Highland Terriers are bred to do, which is hunt small prey. There were many occasions when she would proudly present us with a mouse, vole, or other small animal than she caught in the yard.
Murphy also showed her adoptive intelligence by her ability to figure out how to get her favorite treats out of her Kong treat toys.
She was clearly not a dumb dog, but I also wouldn’t say that there was anything exceptional about her intelligence.
Are Dogs Smart?
When it comes to comparing dogs against the rest of the animal kingdom, most people think that canines have a relatively high intelligence level.
But a new study has shown that while dogs may be smart, they are not exceptional when compared to other animal species.
We probably think that dogs are smarter than they really are because they are our best friends, after all.
I believe that is even more true for our own dogs. Owners are prone to believe that their pup is smarter than they actually are.
That’s why you were probably surprised to hear me say that my own Westie possessed just average intelligence.
I want you to do an experiment. Pick 10 random dog breeds from either list and type “are (dog breed) smart?” in to your favorite search engine.
I’m willing to bet that 9 out of 10 times the answer will be yes.
As you can see, it is not very useful to just say a dog breed is smart as it is highly subjective.
Comparing Dog Breeds
When a person asks if Westies (or any other breed) are smart, what they really want to know is if they are smart compared to other dog breeds. More specifically, they want to know if Westies are towards the top of the list in terms of smartness.
If you completed the little search experiment above, you’ll see that it is all too easy to just say that a particular dog breed is smart.
Like I said before, intelligence exists on a scale. Simply saying that a dog breed is smart without regard for other breeds is not necessarily wrong, but it’s more useful to compare different breeds.
In my research, I’ve found that there are only a few dog breeds including Borders Collies and Poodles that can truly be called smart.
The majority of dogs breeds, including West Highland Terriers, fall into the category of average intelligence.
Westies are Intelligent
Throughout this article I’ve tried to make the point that Westies have average intelligence for dogs. However, it is not wrong to say that Westies are intelligent.
Dictionary.com defines intelligence as “capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity; aptitude in grasping truths, relationships, facts, meanings, etc.”
There’s no doubt that Westies meet this definition and can therefore rightly be called intelligent.
The fact that Westies are able to learn many different commands, understand dozens or even hundreds of words, and grasp relationships proves they meet the definition of intelligence.
Just as humans can become smarter through school and studying, individual dogs can become smarter through training.
Westies are eager to please their owners and are motivated by treats which makes them highly trainable. While they may not have the ability to learn as many commands as Border Collies or be as quick to learn as Poodles, that does not take away from Westies’ capacity for learning.
You’ll often hear that Westies are independent dogs that can be stubborn at times. And while this is true, it doesn’t mean that they can’t be trained.
Murphy knew at least 8 tricks that she would do on command. According to a survey by Vetstreet, that would put her in the top 23.4 percent of dogs that know 7 or more commands.
I’m confident that if I had put in the effort, she would have been able to learn many more tricks as well.
Whether you want to teach your Westie to swim or you just want her to learn basic commands, the key to success is to start training at an early age and use positive reinforcement.
Are Westies Smart?
I could have wrote about how Westies are the smartest dogs in the world and all the ways Murphy showed off her intelligence.
Instead, I wanted to give you the truth. And the truth is that West Highland White Terriers possess average intelligence compared to other dogs.
In the end, does it really matter how smart your dog is? The West Highland Terrier is a popular dog breed because they have so many more qualities that make them the amazing dogs that they are.