The Scottish terrier is among the oldest, best established, most recognizable breeds in the world. Like their terrier cousins, Scotties are super-smart and require a little less exercise than other terriers—making them good apartment dogs. Households with seniors are a good fit, as well as families that have older children. With early socialization, they’ll fit in well with other family dogs, but their strong prey drive probably means they won’t get along well with cats.
Scottish terriers exhibit an independent streak that served them well in the breed’s early days when they were roaming the Highlands tracking down badgers. Today, their smarts, coupled with that need for autonomy, make them trainable, but a trifle mulish. Patience and consistency are the keys to getting these smarties to follow your rules.
Their low-dander, low-shedding coat appeals to folks with allergy concerns. That same coarse, wiry hair, paired with a thick undercoat, requires brushing several times per week and regular grooming as well.
As one of the oldest dog breeds in existence, Scotties have had a long time to work out the kinks. As such, one of the hallmarks of the breed is the almost assembly-line consistency to their look. Scotties are, almost to the dog, 10 inches high. In fact, this height is so assured, that the AKC breed standard doesn’t even list a range for them: Scotties are 10 inches.
Just as consistent is their coloration. The vast majority of Scotties will be black. Brindle Scotties are also somewhat common, with wheaton (a kind of golden yellow/white) being a rare third option. Whatever color, Scotties’ coats consist of a hard, wiry topcoat layered over a thick, soft undercoat. The breed standard cut keeps the hair long along their snouts and eyelines, giving the Scottish terrier a vaguely human, slightly cantankerous look—which is sometimes not totally out of line with their actual personalities.
For decades, the Scottie was among the five most popular breeds, both in the U.S. and abroad. Today, though their popularity has waned, the AKC still ranks them as the 57th most popular breed. So clearly, these little guys bring a lot to the table.
Like all terriers, Scottish terriers were originally bred to be hunters. But while many dogs their size were created to hunt rats or foxes, Scotties were galavanting over the Highlands in search of badgers.
What does that mean for you? As with most terrier breeds, Scotties are highly intelligent. But unlike most other terriers, they can also be highly independent, bordering on aloof when it comes to training. One of the traits Scottish farmers looked for in a good Scottie was a dog that was clever enough to figure things out for himself. This means that, while your Scottie will certainly understand what you’re asking of him, getting him to actually follow through will require a firm hand, combined with lots and lots of patience.
Scotties train well in small bursts, says Dennis Riordan, DVM, of the Riordan Pet Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa. “[Plan for] 10 or 15 minutes of doing something,” he says. If you’re leash training, for example, “You’re walking to the end of the driveway and back,” he says. Scotties also respond best to sessions that are varied; doing the same thing over and over is likely to bore them. They are smart enough to quickly pick up voice commands and inflections in tone, and can understand when you’re frustrated or upset. Training will require patience and consistent rewarding of good behavior.
Scotties are not naturally trusting of strangers, so early socialization is important for getting them used to visitors and other dogs. However, their high prey drive means, as a general rule, cats are likely to be problematic.
Consistent with their terrier lineage, Scotties are natural hunters who require a decent amount of exercise to stay trim and healthy. One advantage they have over other dogs in their group, however, is that they don’t necessarily rely on running and outdoor activity to burn that energy off, making them very well suited for apartment living. If you’ve got a length of rope, a Scottie is more than happy to play tug with you for as long as you can hold out.
One of the upsides of having been bred to be such independent dogs, is that Scotties don’t have a ton in the way of requirements. They adapt to apartment living very well, love families and other dogs if they have been properly socialized as pups, and are more than happy to play tug in the house or accompany you on walks.
Scotties will do well in family households and have the intelligence and adaptability to even work well with less active seniors. But a Scottie is not a great fit for households with toddlers or small children, due to his natural tendency to stand up for himself, which means a sharp poke or a pulled ear could translate into a bite in return.
“They’re headstrong, stubborn dogs, not always the nicest kid dogs,” Riordan says. “There are exceptions for sure, but I wouldn’t normally recommend them as family dogs. Scotties will be fine to a point, but if a kid gets too rough or touches their tails, they’ll nip. There’s a lower bite trigger to them.”
As mentioned above, cats will always be a hard sell, even to pups, thanks to their single-focused prey drive. Exceptions to every rule always exist, but if you get a Scottie banking on getting lucky, you’re likely to be disappointed.
For homes with yards, fences are a requirement. That tenacious prey drive means he’ll not only rid your yard of squirrels and other small animals, but he’ll also chase them right out into the street, if allowed. He’s even been known to completely ignore the shock and run right through electric fences if he’s on a chase.
Scotties also enjoy digging. They’ll quickly find a favorite corner of your yard and go to town, and talking them out of doing so will require a level of patience.
First, the good news: Scotties are extremely rare shedders and are considered hypoallergenic, meaning they’ll be great for people with allergies or adverse reactions to dander or pet fur.
However, that trademark coat of theirs is going to require a decent amount of care to keep it looking good. Their coarse, wiry topcoat will need to be brushed two or three times a week to keep it straight and tangle-free. Additionally, their thick, soft undercoat will need to be treated regularly as well, preferably through hand-stripping. If the idea of spending time hand-stripping your dog (or finding and paying a groomer to do it for you) doesn’t appeal to you, trimming your Scottie’s hair short is another option. Although doing so will make the undercoat show through the topcoat more and give your Scottie a fluffier appearance.
Once again, this is an area where the Scottish terrier’s long breed history works in its favor. Just as their size and appearance has become rock-solid over the years, so has the dog’s bill of health. Scotties are a fantastically healthy breed, as the Scottish Terrier Club of America’s hilariously short health statement will attest. The most common problems for the breed are von Willebrand's disease (a disorder that can affect clotting), craniomandibular osteopathy (an enlargement of bones in the head), and patellar luxation (loose kneecaps). Another minor concern is a non-life threatening affliction colloquially known as “Scottie cramp,” a tendency for some dogs to suffer spasms in their back and hindquarter muscles during periods of high excitement or physical activity.
Riordan also recommends getting your Scottie screened for some basic cancers, as they can be hereditary in the breed. “Bone cancer and lymph-node cancer,” he says. “As well as mast-cell tumors—skin cancers—and oral cancer.”
When discussing the history of a breed as old as the Scottish terrier, it can be difficult to know exactly where to start. Famous English breeder and author Rawdon B. Lee (1845–1908) once wrote that Scotties were “the oldest variety of the canine race indigenous to Britain.”
The first written records of dogs matching a traditional Scottie’s description date to the 15th century, as Don Leslie described small, wire-haired terriers in “The History of Scotland 1436–1561.” By the 17th century, when the Scottish-born King James I of England ascended to the throne, he was known for sending Scotties to fellow monarchs as gifts.
By the 19th century, the dog we now know as the Scottish terrier had become more readily identifiable from its cousin the English terrier primarily by its coat, which was more wiry and coarse in the Scottie. Until the creation of kennel clubs and dog shows, all the variations of small terriers from Scotland were collectively referred to as “Skye terriers,” as all of their shared origins were believed to be from the Isle of Skye. But as dog shows became more formalized and breed standards increased in importance, the Scottish terrier’s look and temperament became standardized for the first time.