About the Cairn Terrier

What Is A Cairn Terrier? – “The Best Little Pal In the World!”

The Cairn Terrier is known for the description “The Best Little Pal in the world” and has become for his plucky, fun-loving character and spirit, as shown by characters such as “Toto” the famous Cairn in the film “The Wizard of Oz”. So what more about this breed of dog, how did he get his name, what is his history and how is he today? Knowing about these things is a must before you decide to adopt a Cairn Terrier. Here is a brief description of the breed.

History of the Cairn Terrier

The Cairn Terrier is an ancient breed originating from the Isle of Skye and the Scottish Highlands. The ancestors of todays Cairn was a working dog that earned his keep working vermin from the rock piles (called cairns) commonly found on Scottish farmland.

He was a rugged & hardy but game little dog with a weather resistant coat, who was willing to work hard and face vermin, foxes, otters and other animals he would flush out from below ground. These early terriers were highly prized and bred for their working ability.

Gradually the breeds known as the Scottish Terrier and the West Highland White evolved and were named. The Cairn remained the closest to the original small working terrier, working in packs to bolt the fox, otter and weasel even into the late 1800s. The photos and prints on the right are taken from the 1890s.

Cairn Terriers Today

Today the Cairn Terrier is a sensible, confident little dog, independent but friendly with everyone he meets. Alert, intelligent and long-lived, the Cairn tends to remain active and playful well into his teen year, endearing him to children.
True to his heritage, the breed still has very large teeth, large feet with thick pads and strong nails (the better to dig with!), strong, muscular shoulders and rears, and a fearless tenacity that will lead him into trouble if his owners are irresponsible.

The Cairn comes in a variety of colours. All are attractive, and you will love your Cairn whatever colour he turns out to be. It can be difficult if not impossible to predict adult colour based on the puppy coat. Colour changes in many Cairns continue for years, sometimes changing up to five or six times in their lifetime. Most brindles eventually becoming very dark, bordering on black. Some wheatens and reds also darken while others may remain light. Part of the fun of the breed is guessing what colour a puppy may eventually become.

Temperament and Training

No two Cairns are truly alike; each has distinct personality and character differences. As a rule, though, Cairns are somewhat independent. A typical puppy may sit on your lap for a few moments, but will resist being held for long, wriggling impatiently to get down and explore. Their intelligence makes them curious and extremely quick to learn. They are surprisingly sensitive, and harsh punishment is not necessary or desirable. However, a Cairn can be wilful and must know from the outset that someone else is in charge. If he has any question about that, hell do his best to run the house himself. Firm, loving and consistent discipline is the key to a good relationship with your Cairn Terrier.

Due to his sometimes gamey and independent nature, it is recommended owners take steps to train their Cairn using positive, reward based training methods from an early age, possibly engaging in training classes but taking time to train in ways that both you and he will enjoy, find fun will be the most rewarding.


Maintaining the Cairns shaggy appearance is not difficult. An hour or so of grooming each week will keep his coat in good condition. As many Cairns are allergic to flea bites, it is important to keep him free of fleas.

The Cairn is different from many dogs by having a “double coat”, an undercoat covered by a coarse outer coat, bred to withstand harsh Highland weather. One advantage of owning a Cairn over some other breeds is moulting is minimal if the dog is brushed and combed weekly and infrequently bathed. If possible, a Cairn’s coat is better “hand stripped” to remove old and dead hair, and if this is done properly his coarse coat will be maintained, whereas if he is clipped the coat is more likely to lose its coarse thickness and go silky.

Pet owners may not wish to have him hand stripped, but for the show world, this is a must. Cairn Terrier exhibitors take pride in the grooming of their dogs to keep the natural coat & maintain the look of this gamey and spirited little Highland dog.

Whether the Cairn becomes a champion at show, or remains a pet, he is primarily known as a loyal, brave little dog who will return great enjoyment and reward to any good, caring owner who has faith in him. With time and a little love he may well become “the best little pal in the world”.

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