Scottish Terrier

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
Photo of adult Scottish Terrier

The Scottish Terrier is one of the old terrier breeds originating from the Skye terrier group. Rugged and determined, the breed was used around its native Aberdeen to hunt vermin, including animals as large as foxes and badgers. To succeed in this role, the Scottie needed to be independent, fearless and determined, which are all traits still seen in the breed today. It is equally well-known for its stubbornness and resistance to training. This is a dog that is fiercely devoted to its family and makes an excellent watchdog, but can be distrustful of strangers, and needs a good deal of socialisation and training to prevent inappropriate behaviour to people and other dogs. However, they are very steady characters with individuals being quite predictable in their responses to situations, and they do not tolerate annoyance – hence are not suitable pets for very young children.

Scotties are energetic and vivacious, but do not need a huge amount of vigorous exercise. They do best when allowed an area of garden to patrol, although their inbuilt propensity to digging may frustrate keen gardeners. The distinctive appearance of the breed is partly down to its low-slung, stocky build, but also depends on regular grooming. There are several health conditions recognised as being a problem with in the Scottish Terrier, including a genetic predisposition to developing several forms of cancer. On average, life expectancy for the breed ranges from 12 to 13 years.

About & History

For centuries, Scotland has been known for its various terrier breeds. As long as 2000 years ago, written records describe ‘earth dogs’ of Britain which were relentless hunters of rodents and other small animals. The Skye terrier ‘type’ emerged as a recognised subtype around 600 years ago, a division which led to the development of the Scottish Terrier, along with other breeds including the Cairn Terrier and West Highland White Terrier. With the Scottie being especially popular amongst dog fanciers around Aberdeen, it was often known as the Aberdeen Terrier during the nineteenth century while the modern breed standard was being developed and refined.

The Scottie’s proud bearing made it a favourite amongst military men around this time; it is said that the Royal Scottish Regiment’s nickname of ‘Diehards’ was coined by their commander, George, the fourth Earl of Dumbarton, after his pack of Scottish Terriers. The Kennel Club recognized the Scottie around 1881, while the modern breed standard was adopted around 1930. The American Kennel Club accepted the breed in 1885. Scotties have enjoyed great success through the years in the show-ring, last winning ‘Best in Show’ at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog show in 2010, and they currently rank as the 58th most popular pedigree in the United States.


Scottish Terrier Large Photo

The Scottish Terrier is a small dog, but very strong and mobile. The manner in which the coat is clipped, particularly around the head, has a great impact on its appearance. The long head is carried proudly, and has a slight stop between the flat crown and the narrow muzzle. The jaws are strong, befitting a hunting dog, and the bite should be neat, with large teeth. The ears are ever-erect and forward-facing, with a velvety covering of fine hair. The eyes are almond-shaped, brown in colour and alert, and are highlighted by appropriate clipping of the eyebrows.

The overall shape of the Scottie is quite square, with a low-slung, broad ribcage and a short, level back. The tail is set high on the back, is quite short, and carried straight upright when the dog is alert. The limbs have a heavy bone structure, and appear short and sturdy, giving the breed a clipped stride when in motion. In common with other breeds developed to dig out prey which had gone to ground, for example its cousin the Cairn, the Scottie’s forepaws are somewhat larger than those on the hindlimbs.

The coat is quite coarse and bristly due to the outer primary coat, and features a soft, dense undercoat. It is warm and weather-resistant, appropriate to the climate of the breed’s native land. Although many people believe that Scotties may only be black in colour, in fact there are three recognised colour variants:

  • Black
  • Wheaten
  • Brindle

The brindle description may be applied to a great variety of shades, meaning that Scotties can have widely varying appearances. Males and females alike measure around 25–28 cm (10–11 in) at the withers, and weigh 8.5–10.5 kg (19-23 lb).

Character & Temperament

The Scottish Terrier’s habitual facial expression gives a clear insight into this little dog’s personality, as it conveys a bold, alert, and cheeky demeanour. Most Scotties are fiercely independent, neither wanting nor needing direction from their human companions. Having been bred to stubbornly pursue rodents without instruction, the breed has a tendency to selective deafness, and is often described as being aloof. However, most Scotties will bond strongly to one or two people, and are almost grudgingly affectionate towards their family. This is not to say that the breed does not require companionship, as without regular interaction they become withdrawn and resentful.

With those it knows well, the Scottie is loyal and dependable, and with its strong personality, it makes an amusing and lively companion. Like many terriers, it will not take kindly being poked, prodded and pulled, and is likely to react with a bite if seriously annoyed, meaning it is not the most suitable breed for young children. Dog-to-dog aggression can be an issue, particularly without positive socialisation training, and the Scottish Terrier cannot be trusted with cats and other smaller pets.

It makes an excellent guard dog, being protective of its owners and property, and is remarkable for the powerful bark which it is capable of producing. However, it can also be faulted for sometimes barking inappropriately and persistently, and so may become a nuisance in an apartment or densely populated setting.


Photo of Scottish Terrier puppy

Obedience training of Scotties can be challenging, to say the least. Most have very strong ideas of how they would like to spend their time, and sitting quietly on command often does not feature highly on their list of priorities. However, they do like being kept busy, and highly stimulating training, such as that involved in ability activities, can be more rewarding.

Socialisation training is of the greatest importance for the breed from a young age, as they need to be introduced to other people and dogs outside of their family on a regular basis to overcome any tendency to aggression or resentment of handling. On the same note, owners must ensure their Scottie learns to tolerate handling of their mouths, ears, and paws as puppies, otherwise routine hygiene and veterinary care can be difficult to implement in the breed. House training of Scottish Terrier puppies is usually not such a challenge, and may be aided by the use of crate training, as the breed takes to its own defined space within the house very readily.


As with any pedigree breed, There are a number of health problems which may be seen in the Scottish Terrier which owners should be aware of. In particular, the breed is highly susceptible to a number of cancers. In addition, many Scotties will have extremely elevated liver enzyme results on routine blood screening, even in the absence of significant liver pathology.


This complicated-sounding term describes abnormal development of joint cartridge, which may manifest as dwarfism in some breeds, but in the Scottish Terrier is largely responsible for its distinctive ‘squat’ body shape, and is rarely of any clinical significance.

Atopic Dermatitis

Allergic skin disease is quite prevalent in many terrier breeds, and the Scottie is no exception. May be seen to develop from a few months of age, and can be a persistent problem, requiring lifelong management.

Bladder Cancer

Most commonly due to a growth called a transitional cell carcinoma, this is a form of cancer which may be up to 20 times more common in Scottish Terriers than in other breeds, with females affected twice as often as males. Signs include difficulty in urination and passing blood in urine. Usually seen in older dogs.

Craniomandibular Osteopathy

A relatively common complaint in Scotties and West Highland White Terriers, this affects young, growing dogs. Inflammation of the bones of the lower jaw and skull results in sometimes severe pain, and may be noticed by owners as snappiness or yelping in response to being petted or touched around the face.

While most puppies outgrow this condition without long-term problems, some will be left with excess bone formation which may cause some issues in opening and closing their mouths. Pain relief is essential during the acute phase.


A genetic tendency to excrete elevated levels of cysteine, an amino acid, in the urine. May form hard deposits in the bladder which can develop into stones, which can cause difficulties in urinating.


Mite infestations in the paws and around the face can occur in Scottish Terriers and several other breeds as a result of an inherited immune deficiency in the response to Demodex parasites.

Factor IX Deficiency

Low levels of this protein are produced in some dogs. This inherited bleeding tendency is also known as Haemophilia B, and may cause signs of heavy, unrelenting bleeding after minor injury.

Lens Luxation

Seen in middle-aged and older Scottish Terriers, particularly following trauma. The lens of the eye, which is normally held tightly in position by muscular attachments, may detach and float into one or other chamber of the eye, causing varying degrees of visual impairment and discomfort.


Another type of cancer to which the breed is prone, this is a tumour of lymphocytes – a type of white blood cell found in high numbers in lymph nodes throughout the body. May first be noticed as multiple hard lumps around the jaw and neck.


This cancer of melanocytes, the pigment-producing cells of the skin, most commonly occurs around the tissues of the mouth, where it tends to behave in quite an aggressive manner.

Myasthenia Gravis

Scottish Terriers are prone to this uncommon condition, caused by the production of antibodies against acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme responsible for normal communication between the nervous system and muscle tissues. This most commonly manifests as collapse or muscular weakness while exercising, but can also affect the neuromuscular junctions of the oesophagus, leading to swallowing difficulties.

Scottie Cramp

As the name suggests, this condition is unique to the breed, and can potentially be confused with myasthenia gravis (above). In contrast to myasthenia, the collapse which may be seen with exertion is due to tonic contraction of the muscles, which are tense rather than flaccid during episodes.

Sebaceous Adenitis

An inflammatory condition of the skin’s sebaceous glands, which is usually most noticeable as patches of hair loss and skin infection.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Another cancerous process which most commonly occurs in the skin, although it may also be seen in other organs containing cells of dermal origin.

von Willebrand’s Disease

Like Factor IX deficiency, this is a condition leading to excessive and uncontrolled bleeding. In this disorder, however, the problem resides in the blood’s platelet cells, which function inadequately, and do not initiate healthy clot formation.

Exercise and Activity Levels

While Scotties like to be active, this translates to a need to explore and dig around the home or garden more than a requirement for long walks or vigorous activity. Their short legs and low carriage mean that the breed does not like to run for long distances with short bursts of speed being their preferred method for pursuing prey. They enjoy access to the garden, with all the mental stimulation which this brings, but are notorious diggers, and are unlikely to leave many plants undisturbed.


Scottish Terriers shed a reasonable amount of hair year-round, and require regular brushing several times per week to keep the dense coat free from dead hair and debris. Professional grooming is required approximately every three months to keep the classic shape to the clipped hair.

Routine tasks, such as nail-clipping, brushing teeth, and cleaning ears may be difficult in some Scotties unless these are introduced to them as puppies, when they tend to be more accepting of new experiences. Practising these routines at home will make veterinary and grooming visits far less stressful when they are required.

Famous Scottish Terriers

The Scottish Terrier has patrolled the corridors of the White House on several occasions, have been the dog of choice of:

  • Franklin D. Roosevelt
  • Dwight Eisenhower
  • Jackie Onassis
  • George W. Bush


Some of the better-known Scottish Terrier crosses include:

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