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Cairn Terriers originated on the Isle of Skye, and in the Scottish Highlands as a vermin killing dog. They excelled at removing rats and other rodents from the stone cairns commonly found on Scottish farms. These dogs were not bred for looks, but rather working ability.
Gradually, separate strains of terrier became the Scottie, the West Highland White, with the original terrier being defined as the Cairn. The Cairn is closest to its original ancestors, and still excels in flushing out vermin. This may not be terribly handy in modern life, but it can be very amusing.
Today, the Cairn is more of a companion animal. Like all terriers, they are frisky, independent bundles of energy. They are long lived dogs, with few health problems, and many live well into their late teens.
They are also quite sturdy and are much tougher than their small size suggests. The most famous example of a Cairn is Toto from the Wizard of Oz. (Not my favorite example, but most people have heard of him.)
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The Breed Standard for Cairn Terriers in the U.S. states that the dog should be 9-1/2 to 10 inches tall at the shoulder, and weigh thirteen to fourteen lbs., with bitches slightly smaller. However, there are some Cairns out there weighing up to eighteen lbs., due to the influence of British breeding stock.
Cairns also have large teeth for their size, large feet, and strong nails. They have muscular shoulders and very strong legs for digging.
Cairns are short, shaggy dogs, fairly long for their height, with large heads and pricked up ears. They have a waterproof, rough coat, and do not shed. They come in a variety of colors, with brindle shades predominating. Brindle means black hairs interspersed with the other fur color.
A Cairn can be any color but white. Adult color cannot be reliably predicted based on the puppy coat, as the adult coat can be markedly darker, eventually approaching black.
Cairn Terriers are “people” dogs. They thrive indoors, with the family, and soak up attention. If you aren’t careful, your Cairn will sneak between you and your keyboard every time you sit down to write a breed-faq!
They love children, activity and play, although you will have to take care that the kids don’t try to ride the dog. Although they really are a “big dog in a little dog’s body”, riding such a little dog will squish him.
Because Cairns thrive on attention, they are not suitable for people with “no time for a dog.” If left alone 12 hours a day, they will certainly find a way to let you know how unhappy they are. And, like all terriers, they are voracious chewers.
Be warned. (On a more positive note, I occasionally left my previous Cairn uncrated for up to twelve hours at a stretch, while I worked, without any problems. However, I lavished attention on the dog when I returned, and I kept the long days to a minimum. I regularly leave my current Cairn for eight hour stretches without problems.)
A Cairn is not an appropriate dog for an outdoor life. He really needs to live in the house with his people.
I did get a note from a person in California who keeps his Cairn outdoors, but I really think that this is a far less than ideal situation. In New England where I live, it would be impossible to make your Cairn live outdoors.
Cairns are also rather well known for their digging ability. A separate area of the yard, without prized shrubs or flowers, would be suitable for your Cairn. Some people advocate filling the holes with water or other things to stop the digging.
In my opinion, a better policy would be to find an out of the way area for your dog to dig, and not to worry about it.
Cairn Terriers can be quite verbal. This does not mean that they are problem barkers, but they will “talk”, and grumble, and arf to communicate. It is a very easy thing to train your Cairn to “speak”, and to “ask” for a treat.
A Cairn left on a line in the backyard may well become a problem barker, due to loneliness. He will also get eaten by the big dogs in the neighborhood, because he doesn’t know when to back down.
Cairns are very territorial. This is good for security purposes but can become problematic if precautions aren’t taken.
Letting a Cairn run loose can give him the impression that a whole neighborhood belongs to him, and woe unto any strange dog trespassing on his land. Also, if you have a multiple dog household, a male Cairn Terrier should not live with another (unneutered) male dog of any breed. (A Cairn really has no clue that he is so small).
As mentioned above, Cairns are chewers. They have also been known to dig and climb. Those are the bad points. If given plenty of exercise, and appropriate things to chew, these character traits need not become a problem.
It is very easy to exercise a Cairn while watching TV. Just throw a tennis ball around the floor, and say “Gimme that ball.” 😉 Unlike many of the working breeds, a Cairn need not be walked for miles each day. If you want to walk for miles, your dog will be thrilled, but it’s not required.
However, this really isn’t a dog to go long distance running with. Not only will people laugh at you, it’s too much for the dog’s little legs.
“Go to Ground” Trials for Terriers
Note: This section was stolen shamelessly from a Westie (eek!) publication. (These are also sometimes called “terrier digs” and “Working Terrier Trials”.) The event is called Earthdog Tests because it is designed for dogs bred to go to ground for badger, fox, and otter.
The event will lead to the AKC titles Junior Earthdog (JE), Senior Earthdog (SE), and Master Earthdog (ME). Other kennel clubs, such as the UKC, assorted terrier breed clubs, such as the Jack Russell Terrier Club and the American Working Terrier Association have their own, similar “Go to Ground” trials.
The AKC test is limited to Australian Terriers, Bedlington Terriers, Border Terriers, Cairn Terriers, Dandie Dinmont Terriers, Fox Terriers, Lakeland Terriers, Norfolk Terriers, Norwich Terriers, Scottish Terriers, Skye Terriers, Welsh Terriers, West Highland White Terriers, and Dachshunds.
Because it is impractical to use badger, fox, or otter as quarry in a test, the quarry will be laboratory rats or optionally a to-be-designed artificial quarry.
A non-titling Introductory Test is similar to AWTA’s Novice Class. It uses a ten foot tunnel with one corner, the dog has two minutes to reach the quarry and start to work, and the dog must work for 30 seconds.
Work is defined as digging, barking, growling, lunging, biting at the quarry or any other action which indicates that the dog is attempting to attack the quarry. The test is pass-fail and is designed to introduce dogs to earthwork.
The Junior Earthdog Test is similar to AWTA’s Open class. It uses a 30 foot tunnel with three corners. The dog has 30 seconds to reach the quarry, 30 seconds to start working and must work for 60 seconds. The test is pass-fail. A dog who passes the test twice under two different judges will earn the Junior Earthdog degree.
The Senior Earthdog test increases in time and difficulty. Dogs must have the Junior Earthdog or the AWTA CG before entering this test. A dog who passes the test three times under at least two different judges will earn the Senior Earthdog degree.
The Master Earthdog test is newly designed. The test consists of several parts and the dog must pass each part to pass the test. The dog must pass the test four times under at least two different judges to earn the Master Earthdog degree.
It is highly advisable to obedience train your Cairn. (Actually, I think that basic obedience training should be mandatory for every dog, if only that it makes living with your dog a whole lot more pleasant). Cairns learn very quickly, and the few standard commands can be quickly supplemented with some tricks.
Training a Cairn, however, is not like training a Lab or Golden. Cairns won’t do fifty sit/stays in a row, just for the heck of it. If you keep the training fun and not repetitive, you both will have a great time. Cairns want you to be alpha, and as such, really strive to please you.
Cairns can be easy to housetrain, mainly due to their desire to please their people. I strongly recommend using a reward system to house train your Cairn. In short, each time you take your pup out to do his business, give a “potty” command (use some word that you won’t feel foolish saying in public. I use “do it.”)
When the dog produces, be lavish with the praise, and perhaps even give a treat. If/When the dog has an accident in the house, don’t punish the dog, and clean the spot with an enzyme cleaner. It is essential that you use an enzyme cleaner – dogs can smell a marked spot otherwise and will continue to soil your home.
They keys to this method are that you take the dog out, not just let him out, and all the praise. Your Cairn will quickly learn that going outside gets him a reward, and going in the house gets him nothing.
Every person I have spoken with that uses this method faithfully has reported success in a very short time. However, every person I’ve spoken with that only uses part of this method has had terrible housebreaking problems.
The most common mistake is letting the dog out and not taking the dog out with you (This does not apply only to Cairns, I mean all the dogs and owners that I know) I know it’s a pain, but for a month or so, it’s definitely worth it.
Cairns does not shed, and don’t require an awful lot of special grooming. A few minutes with the slicker brush every couple of days usually does it. They are supposed to be hand stripped at least once a year, which encourages the growth of a new, rough, waterproof, coat.
Hand stripping means to pull the hair out, root and all. It doesn’t hurt the dog, but if you’re a wimp, a groomer can do it for you.
However, due to the enormous time investment involved, be prepared to pay dearly for this service. You can shave a terrier in about ten minutes, but stripping takes a couple of hours, at least.
I hand strip my Cairn about every six months. I use one hand to grip the hair, and the other hand’s fingers at the skin to hold it in place. Then, I give a quick pull, and the old, dead hair, being so loosely rooted, just comes out. What is left is a brightly colored undercoat. This sounds a LOT worse than it is.
My Cairn doesn’t like being still for such a long time, but she never seems to even feel the hair pulling. I always do hand stripping outdoors, and I recommend that you wear clothing similar in color to your dog.
You WILL need a shower when you finish.
The reward for doing this is that the new coat grows in much more brightly colored, and looks beautiful. Also, the new coat will be far more weather resistant than one that hasn’t been stripped.
The Cairn Terrier Club of America puts out a detailed instruction booklet ($2), the address is listed below.
Also, like all other dogs, Cairns require some very basic grooming steps, namely nail clipping and tooth brushing to maintain optimum health.
Tooth brushing. In order to keep your Cairn’s mouth in the best possible shape, and to minimize gum and tooth problems in later life, tooth brushing is a must. As a side benefit, “dog breath” problems are also greatly reduced.
A gentle toothbrush, or piece of gauze wrapped around a finger, are all that is required. For a more thorough job, special Dog toothpaste (available at pet stores or from your vet) works quite well. Do not use “people” toothpaste for your dog’s teeth.
It can cause an upset stomach and vomiting. When starting to brush your Cairn’s teeth, take it slowly. At first, just allow your dog to lick the toothpaste off the toothbrush. Later, begin brushing the front teeth, and gradually work toward brushing all the teeth, especially the outside and biting surfaces.
If your Cairn already has a tartar problem, a professional cleaning by your vet may be in order.
Nail Clipping. Unless your Cairn walks for miles on pavement every day, she may require periodic nail clipping. You can have a professional groomer clip your dog’s nails, or have your vet show you how to do this yourself. If nail clipping is neglected, the overgrown nails can curve under, and damage the dog’s foot.
Cairns are generally very healthy dogs. There are rare cases of inherited diseases such as Von Willebrand’s Disease, which is a bleeding disorder, similar to Hemophilia. The Cairn Terrier Clearinghouse has identified other inherited conditions that can be found in Cairns.
This is not to say that they are unhealthy or prone to illness in any way. It means that the Cairn community is actively trying to eradicate hereditary illness in their dogs. In general, compared to some other breeds, Cairns are quite healthy dogs.
That being said, the most notable common problem in Cairns is that they tend to have flea allergies. Folk wisdom says that this can be combated with a teaspoon of tomato sauce in each day’s food. (YMMV) Normal flea prevention is much more effective. Darker colored Cairns are reputed to be less prone to flea allergies.
Like most small breeds of dogs, your Cairn can be susceptible to luxating patellas, or as it is more commonly called floating kneecaps. This means that the ligaments holding the kneecap are loose, and the joint isn’t as deeply grooved as it should be.
A vet can diagnose this problem during a routine checkup. A diagnosis of luxating patellas can mean anything from no restriction of activity at all, to quite debilitating.
Fortunately, most of the time, the condition is less severe. Even a severe case of floating kneecaps can be treated with surgery. Obviously, this is a very condensed description and is not meant to be the definitive answer on any joint condition in your dog. For more information, please contact your vet.
A Cairn can thrive on any high-quality dry dog food. Most adult dogs can be maintained on 1/2 to 2/3 of a cup of food a day, usually in two small meals. Cairns are prone to getting fat, so keeping a close watch on their weight is a must.
And, as with people, proper daily exercise the key to maintaining the proper weight in your Cairn. As a practical guide, my Cairn gets 1/2 cup of food a day, which means an eight lb. sack lasts about five weeks.
Obviously, if you’ve read this far, you must agree with me that Cairn Terriers are the most handsome, best dogs out there. Cute, portable, loyal, not overbred, and not “sissy” dogs. Most people who have owned a Cairn never want another kind of dog.
On that note, let me put in a plug for Cairn Breed rescue. Cairns are pretty near ideal candidates for adoption, even as adults. They quickly become acclimated to a new home and family, as long as there is adequate attention.
My current Cairn Terrier is a rescue dog. Adopting her is one of the smarter things I’ve done in my life. I can be reached via email for a local contact of breed rescue, or the national address is listed below.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do Cairn Terriers Yap? (Are they “Yappy Little Dogs?”)
Not really. They do have a distinctive bark, which of course, is not the deep voice of a large dog, and no one is going to mistake the bark of a Cairn for the bark of a Mastiff. On the good side, they don’t yap like a Chihuahua, either. Unless untrained, they do not bark incessantly. However, if you leave a Cairn, or most dogs for that matter, tied in the yard alone for hours, that dog will bark, and bark, and bark, ad nauseam.
Do Cairn Terriers shed?
All dogs lose some hair at some time, just like people, but Cairn Terriers do not shed at all in the traditional sense – in other words, you won’t have to sweep up Cairn fur every day, unlike some other breeds.
For that reason, they can be especially good for allergy sufferers. However, if you or a family member is an allergy sufferer, I strongly encourage that you visit a Cairn breeder and spend time with Cairns before bringing one into your home. In this way, you will discover whether you react to Cairns.
Are they good with children?
Again, like all dogs, Cairns need to be socialized in order to be good with people, children included. However, they are loyal family dogs, and are very good with children.
Many reputable breeders will not sell a Cairn to a home with toddlers or children younger than school age. However, this is not a universal situation, and exceptions are often made if you can show a breeder that your children are careful, and know how to behave around a dog. As with most things, mutual respect is the key.
Are they good with other dogs?
Sort of. An unaltered Male Cairn should not be housed with another unaltered male dog of any breed. A Cairn will be a good companion dog with other dogs in the house, but will still behave in a territorial manner with “strange” dogs.
Are they good with Cats and other household pets?
Cats, yes, once the two are properly socialized with one another. I would not recommend a Cairn Terrier in any household that has a rodent as a pet, such a rabbit or guinea pig. Cairns are bred to kill rodents and could do some damage to such a pet.
Should I have my Cairn shaved for the summer?
Well, obviously, you can do as you wish, but a Cairn is properly hand stripped. Most groomers style a Cairn like a Westie or some other kind of terrier, which of course, they are not. Also, shaving does nothing to remove the dead hair which builds up in the hair follicles.
Bonus Question: (which is asked more than any other Cairn Terrier question) Hey is that a Toto Dog? Alternatively: Hey is that some kind of rat?
NO. Take a hike, buddy 🙂