Information about the Cairn Terrier

The Cairn Terrier is the oldest of the terrier breeds, originating in the Scottish Highlands and recognized as one of Scotland’s earliest working dogs. It is used for hunting and burrowing prey among the cairns.

Although the breed had existed long before, the name Cairn Terrier was a compromise suggestion after the breed was originally brought to official shows in the United Kingdom in 1909 under the name Short-haired Skye terriers. This name was not acceptable to The Kennel Club due to opposition from Skye Terrier breeders, and the name Cairn Terrier was suggested as an alternative. They are usually left-pawed, which has been shown in dogs to correlate to superior performance in tasks related to scent. Cairn Terriers are ratters. In Scotland they would search the cairns (man-made pile of stones) for rats and other rodents. Thus if one is kept as a household pet it will do the job of a cat, specifically catching and killing mice, rabbits, and squirrels.

The Cairn originated in the Highlands of Scotland and the Isle of Skye, initially grouped in the “Skye Terrier” class alongside the Scottish and West Highland White Terriers. In the early 1900s, the three breeds began to be bred separately. The name “Cairn” refers to the rock dens that foxes and badgers lived in throughout the countryside. The dog would squirm down into these “cairns” and bark to hold the predator until the farmer killed it.

The Cairn Terrier has a harsh, weather-resistant outer coat that can be cream, wheaten, red, sandy, gray, or brindled in any of these colours. Pure black, black and tan, and white are not permitted by many kennel clubs. While registration of white Cairns was once permitted, after 1917 the American Kennel Club required them to be registered as West Highland White Terriers. A notable characteristic of Cairns is that brindled Cairns frequently change colour throughout their lifetime. It is not uncommon for a brindled Cairn to become progressively more black or silver as it ages. The Cairn is double-coated, with a soft, dense undercoat and a harsh outer coat. A well-groomed Cairn has a rough-and-ready appearance, free of artifice or exaggeration.
Nine week old Cairn Terrier with Brindle coat.

Referred to by those who are in the know as a “big dog trapped in a small dog’s body”, Cairn Terriers are adventurous, intelligent, strong, loyal, and tough–not a delicate lapdog. Like most terriers, they love to dig after real or imagined prey. They are vermin hunters. Cairns have potential aggression toward other animals with strong chasing instincts but will co-exist with them more readily than some other terriers. However, strange animals may be a different story, as the Cairn Terrier was bred to hunt and will chase anything that moves. They are protective of their families, and will defend their territory with courage and devotion, but they are also people-oriented and are friendly with everyone they meet. They generally do well with other dogs, but will stand their ground if challenged, and also have been known to harass, and sometimes hurt cats. There is very little a Cairn cannot learn if his owner takes the time to teach him or her. Cairn Terriers have a strong prey instinct and will need comprehensive training. However, they are intelligent and, although wilful, can be trained. Training of the Cairn Terrier has the best results when training as a puppy, as they become wilfully stubborn. Although it is often said that they are disobedient, this is not the case provided correct training is applied. They’ve been called “the best little pal in the world” and they are always a work in progress. If there is no fenced yard, the Cairn must be exercised on a leash, as it is impossible to train a Cairn to resist the urge to chase squirrels, cats, rabbits, other dogs, etc. (Cairns were bred to hunt). Walking is excellent exercise for Cairns and their owners. A brisk walk daily, on leash, is ideal. From the Cairn’s point of view, the longer the walk the better. Although small in size at nine to ten inches at the shoulder with weight ranging from thirteen to fourteen pounds, the Cairn is a big dog trapped in a little dog’s body. There have been cases of Cairns taking on much larger and fiercer dogs, only to come out on the losing end, because they do not know when to back down. For that reason the Cairn must be kept in a suitable enclosure. Cairn Terriers generally are gentle and adapt well to children and are suitable family dogs, but will not tolerate mistreatment. They are not usually problem barkers, but will bark if bored or lonely.

Cairns love their families, but may try to test their owner’s limits, so obedience training is necessary. Although they learn quickly, the Cairn may always have the instinct to dig and chase small animals, so new owners should be prepared for these behaviors. Regular brushing and exercise are also necessary to keep the breed fit and happy.

Cairn Terriers are very playful and enjoy toys. They have powerful jaws which enable them to shred almost anything, however their intelligence allows them to learn quickly what is a toy and what is not. Cairn Terriers “squig” when they have a toy, shaking back and forth in a playful manner.

Cairn Terriers are hypoallergenic and shed very little but should always be hand stripped. Using scissors or shears can ruin the dog’s rugged outer coat after one grooming. Hand stripping involves pulling the old dead hair out by the roots. This does not harm the dog in any way. Removing the dead hair in this manner allows new growth to come in. This new growth helps protect the dog from water and dirt. Extra attention should be given to the grooming of the Cairn Terrier in order to help prevent bothersome skin conditions as they get older. Be sure to see that the dog’s skin is all right before grooming. Keeping any dog routinely groomed leads to better health.