The Cairn Terrier Dog Breed Is Inquisitive And Energetic.

Cairn Terrier

Discover the Cairn Terrier dog breed – bright, inquisitive and full of fun!

The Cairn Terrier was originally bred in Scotland to detect and dig out small rodents, larger animals in burrows, and even foxes. They still keep the instinct to dig and burrow, and will chase any small animals they see. They are small enough to fit comfortably on your lap, yet tough enough for a romp around the garden in any weather.

A Cairn Terrier standing on a small black table indoors, against a white background.
The Cairn Terrier dog breed

Cairn Terrier Dog Breed – Temperament

These dogs are happy, bright and curious. They are playful around the house or apartment, and will investigate anything small that moves. This means that you should take care if you have other small pets at home, like mice, guinea pigs or gerbils, for example, as Cairn Terriers will go for them.

This is by no means a sign of aggression, but is simply a part of this breed’s nature. It’s what they were developed to do, and even the best behaved Cairn will chase small animals if it can.

The Cairn Terrier dog breed enjoys human company, and does best in a home situation where they are rarely alone for long. They are well suited to apartment life, as they do not need much space and their exercise requirements are easily filled by chasing around the room and some short walks each day.

Cairns also do well in a rural setting, where they can follow a scent, track and dig as their ancestors did. They are pretty much weatherproof, with a thick, fine and dense undercoat, and a wiry, water-resistant top coat.

Two Cairn Terrier dogs lying on a grass lawn, one fawn colored and the other one black in color.
Two Cairn terriers showing possoble coat colors.

Cairn Terrier Dog Breed
– Breed History

Originally there were several types of Terrier breed in Scotland, and they were all simply known as ‘Scottish Terriers.  (‘Scotch’ Terrier is incorrect – Scotch is a whisky.) They were used for controlling small vermin on farms and estates on the West side of the Highlands and the Isle of Skye.

Although the modern-day name of ‘Cairn Terrier’ appeared in print in 1887, the breed had been known and bred long before that, for many many years.  But where does the name come from? Is ‘Cairn’ a place or region?

No, the word ‘Cairn’ describes a hand-built pile of rocks, carefully assembled to be stable yet prominent, to act as a marker. It may have been a burial mound, a waypoint on a trail, or a border mark of a piece of land.

Sometimes, cairns were placed quite close together. With the small gaps between the stones around the base of each cairn, these were ideal places for animals such as rats and mice to live and breed. This Terrier breed was developed to be small enough yet brave and strong enough to scent, track down and dig out these rodents, alone.

When they were used in a pack of several dogs, they would also track and take on bigger animals like otters and foxes, but they were more accustomed to digging out rodents from under and around cairns, and so eventually gained the name they have today.

At first, the breed was introduced at dog shows in in the U.K. in 1909 as the Short-Haired Skye Terrier, but the Kennel Club of the United Kingdom refused this name as it could be confused with the Skye Terrier, and so the name ‘Cairn Terrier’ was adopted in 1912. The AKC recognized the breed in 1913, according to their website.

Vital Statistics;

Height; 10 inches (males) and 9 inches (females)

Weight; 14 lbs (males) and 13 lbs (females)

Life Span; approximately 13 to 15 years, with some variation.


According to the American Kennel Club, acceptable colors are;

Black;  Black Brindle;  Brindle; Cream; Cream; Gray; Gray Brindle; Red; Red Brindle;  Silver;  Wheaten.

A Cairn Terrier sitting on a wooden bench outdoors in the park
A happy Cairn Terrier!

Cairn Terrier Dog Breed – Ease of Training

Cairn Terriers are relatively easily trained, but there are 2 provisos! First, they are active dogs, and need some exercise to burn off energy before you try any training. Second, it’s recommended to enroll in puppy training classes to get the basics straight, and then in obedience classes in order to establish that the owner is the alpha male in the house!

Remember, the Cairn Terrier dog breed will always have the in-born tendency to sniff out and chase small animals, and will dig a hole if the smell is interesting enough. They may well dig their way out of a fenced yard.

Cairn Terrier Dog Breed – Protection

Cairn Terriers make excellent watchdogs. They are alert and vigilent, and ready to bark at the slightest intrusion. A Cairn will quickly let you know if something out of the ordinary is going on in the vicinity. They have a surprisingly loud bark for their size!

However, as a guard dog, they are not very imposing, and are unlikely to deter most would-be intruders, unless their barking is loud enough. They are not big enough to physically defend their patch, despite their undoubted bravery and tenacious attitude.

If you are looking for protection with your dog, I suggest you look t a larger breed.

A Cairn Terrier sitting on a grassy field, with a few autumn leaves.
Cairn Terrier

Cairn Terrier Dog Breed – Grooming

Grooming is not difficult, but takes some time. They should be groomed at least once a week, even 2 times, with a comb and a soft slicker brush. Hand stripping should be carried out occasionally to remove dead hair and encourage new growth, but must be done gently with these small dogs.

Cairns are occasional shedders, and do not leave a lot of hairs around the house or car as long as they are brushed and combed regularly.

Their claws should be checked and trimmed if needed, especially if they spend a lot of time indoors. Their teeth should be brushed with a dog-specific toothpaste and a soft, small brush. Do not use a human toothpaste, as it contains Xylitol.

Ears should be checked weekly for any signs of redness, swelling, infection or injury.

Health Considerations

Some of the more common hereditary health problems found in the Cairn are:

Famous Cairn Terriers

Cairn Terriers feature in numerous films and TV series, but the most famous is probably in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, featuring a brindle Cairn Terrier in the part of Toto.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *