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Cairn Terrier

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 Cairn Terrier

The Cairn Terrier is a small purebred from the highlands of Scotland where it was bred a ratter and hunter of other small prey. It is a talented dog including areas such as agility, earthdog, tracking, competitive obedience and hunting. It is one of the earliest working dogs from Scotland and its name comes from the Cairns you can find on the highlands which are basically mounds of stones presumed to be markers, burial mounds or landmarks, where prey would go to ground and the Cairn could get in and hold them until its owner got there.

Here is the Cairn Terrier at a Glance
Name Cairn Terrier
Other Names Toto Dog
Nicknames Cairn
Origin UK
Average size Small
Average weight 13 to 18 pounds
Average height 9 to 13 inches
Life span 12 to 15 years
Coat type Harsh, rough, short
Hypoallergenic Yes
Color Red, black, brindle, grey,white
Popularity Somewhat popular – ranked 70th by the AKC
Intelligence Above average
Tolerance to heat Very good – can handle hot weather just not extreme heat
Tolerance to cold Very good – can handle cold weather just not extremes
Shedding Low – good for owners who do not want a lot of hair around the home
Drooling Low – not a dog known to drool or slobber
Obesity Average – not especially prone to gaining weight but could be an issue if overfed and under exercised
Grooming/brushing Moderate to high – low shedding but regular maintenance is needed
Barking Frequent – will need training to stop
Exercise needs Fairly active – will need daily walks and some time off leash
Trainability Moderately easy – gradual process but not too hard
Friendliness Excellent – social dog
Good first dog Very good – good temperament and not too hard to train
Good family pet Excellent with socialization
Good with children Excellent with socialization
Good with other dogs Very good with socialization
Good with other pets Good, needs socialization as can have strong prey drive
Good with strangers Very good with socialization
Good apartment dog Excellent due to size but barking will need to be controlled
Handles alone time well Low – can be prone to separation anxiety
Health issues Has a few health issues including eye problems, hypothyroidism, Patellar luxation and liver problems
Medical expenses $435 a year for basic care and pet insurance
Food expenses $75 a year for a good quality dog food and treats
Miscellaneous expenses $495 a year for toys, license, grooming, training and other miscellaneous items
Average annual expense $1005 a year as a starting figure
Cost to purchase $750
Biting Statistics None reported

The Cairn Terrier's Beginnings

The Cairn Terrier comes from the Isle of Skye and the highlands of Scotland and is believed to date back to at least the 1500s, possibly earlier. It was used to hunt small prey like badger and foxes as well as being an effective ratter, a dog that caught vermin like rats and mice. It is one of Scotland's oldest breeds of terrier, in 1873 the Scotch terrier were split into two classes, the Skye Terriers and the Dandie Dinmont Terriers. It was thought of as the same breed as the Westie and the Scottie until the 1900s when in 1909 they were separated. In 1881 a club for the breed was formed, then called Hard Haired Scotch Terriers and a year later a standard was agreed upon.

New Lease on Life

The first Cairns came to the US with Mrs Price and Mrs Rodgers and the AKC recognized the Cairn in 1913. For four years Cairns and Westies were still allowed to be bred together but that was stopped. After the award winning movie 'The Wizard of Oz' and the performance of a Cairn Terrier playing Toto, the breed became quite popular in the 1930s. Today it is ranked 70th by the AKC.

The Dog You See Today

The Cairn Terrier is a small dog weighing 13 to 18 pounds and standing 9 to 13 inches tall. It has a wide head but in proportion to its body with a fox like face. It has a medium length dark muzzle, a black nose and wide set deep eyes that are hazel in color and have shaggy eyebrows above them. Its ears are erect, sit widely apart and are small in size and they have short dark hairs over them.

It has a tail covered in short hair which is usually dark at the tip and a coat that is harsh, short, water-repellent, shaggy but with a soft undercoat. Common colors are grey, red, brindle, black and sand but as its coat can change colors several times as it grows what its final coat will look like is not predictable. It is often quite a scruffy looking dog.

The Inner Cairn Terrier


The Cairn is fairly intelligent and very brave, bold and alert. It is a very good watchdog and will bark to let you know if there is an intruder trying to get in. However it is not usually that protective so is unlikely to act to defend you. This is a good dog for new owners as it is not too hard to care for, train or raise. It is very loyal but it can have an independent side.

Cairn Terriers are very animated and lively, it has a lot of curiosity and a cheerful nature. They are friendly and with socialization can get along with almost anyone. You do need to make it clear you are the boss as if you are too meek it can be a handful! It also likes to dig so is likely to dig up your yard if you do not give it its own place to dig in. Despite their liveliness if they are raised well, with the right level of socialization, training and exercise it will be quite easy going and calm. Without them it can be aggressive and snappy.


In The Wizard of Oz Toto was a Cairn and was portrayed as a steady, loyal, brave, confident companion which is as accurate description. It can also be sensitive and it does not like being left alone for long periods, it can lead to separation anxiety. It needs lots of attention and to be included as part of the family.

Living with a Cairn Terrier

What will training look like?

The Cairn is moderately easy to train so while the process will be gradual it will not take a lot of time and be a painful process. It is very important that you are firm with it so that it knows you are the boss, otherwise it can be willful. If you over baby it and spoil it it can develop small dog syndrome where its behavior can be destructive, it gets snappy and aggressive and it not an easy dog to live with. Training should be done in a positive way, it will not respond well to harsh techniques. Give it some praise, treats, encourage it and reward it. It can be independent so may challenge you sometimes and you need to deal with that in a consistent manner.

As well as doing at least basic obedience training you might consider teaching it some tricks as a way of offering it some mental challenge when the other training is done. You also need to make sure it is well socialized. Make sure from an early age it is exposed to different people, animals, dogs and situations so it is able to develop better reactions and be more confident and trustworthy. Make sure you also include leash training.

How active is the Cairn Terrier?

This is a fairly active dog so while it can live in an apartment thanks to its size and it does not need a yard, it will need at least a couple of walks a day along with time off leash somewhere safe like a dog park. Some of its activity needs will be fulfilled with its activity indoors, it will play indoors and be fairly active. If there is a yard that is a bonus but make sure it is well fenced in as it will run off after things that attract its attention like small animals. In all it should be getting 45 to 60 minutes a day which includes playtime.

Caring for the Cairn Terrier

Grooming needs

There will be a moderate amount of grooming and maintenance to be done for the Cairn. It is low shedding so there will not be an excessive amount of loose hair around the home. Some hand stripping will need to done though and unless you have experience this is something you should have a professional groomer take care of for you. It is important that since it does not shed a lot dead hair is removed so that new hair can grow through. Do not ever use a clipper on its coat as that can destroy the protection the wiry coat offers it.

Brushing should be done two to three times a week taking care not to get too rough with the softer undercoat. The hair around its eyes and ears needs to be trimmed regularly and it should be given a bath just when it needs one to avoid drying out its skin.


Its nails will also need regular clipping when they get too long, this is something that should be done by a groomer preferably unless it is something you have done before. Cutting too low can cause pain and bleeding. Check its ears for signs of infection weekly and give them a wipe clean using a dog ear cleansing solution and cotton ball. Its teeth should also be brushed at least two to three times a week.

Feeding Time

How much food each Cairn needs will differ just as it does with people. Its activity levels, metabolism, size and health will have an impact. On average it usually falls between ½ to 1 cup of a good quality dry dog food and that should be split into at least two meals.

How is the Cairn Terrier with children and other animals?

With socialization the Cairn Terrier is excellent with children, they make great play mates together, lively, energetic and full of fun and joy. They are also affectionate towards each other and make great best friends. Children should always be taught how to play and touch dogs in a kind and safe way.

With other dogs it is very good with socialization, it is not aggressive towards them and enjoys having friends at the dog park to play with. With other pets though that socialization is even more important as its high prey drive means it tends to want to chase them down. With pets it has been raised with in the home it is more likely to be able to accept it, but with rabbits, cats, squirrels and such outside it will want to go after them.

What Might Go Wrong?

Health Concerns

A Cairn Terrier will live for between 12 to 15 years. It is not a super healthy breed though, there are several health problems it is prone to such as eye problems, joint dysplasia, hypothyroidism, legg-calve-perthes syndrome, liver problems, von Willebrand disease, Krabbe disease, Craniomandibular Osteopathy, Cryptorchidism and patellar luxation.

Biting Statistics

Looking at reports from Canada and the US over the last 34 years of dogs attacking people and doing bodily harm, the Cairn Terrier is not mentioned. This does not mean it has not been involved in any less serious attacks or that it has not attacked other dogs. This is not a dangerous dog to fear but the fact is given certain conditions or situations any dog can snap. It is very important you raise a dog that suits your level of activity and your lifestyle. Don't get a dog that needs lots of attention and hates being left alone if you are out for 12 hours a day working and socializing. Make sure you train it, socialize it and offer it the love and care it needs. These things will lessen the chances of any issues, though not completely eliminate them.

Your Pup’s Price Tag

A Cairn Terrier puppy will cost about $750 to purchase from a good breeder of pet quality Cairns. For something of higher level, as in a dog that is show quality from a top breeder those numbers go into the several thousands. If you are interested in offering a dog a second chance and a new home you can check shelters and rescues though you are likely to find adult dogs rather than puppies. They will have had the necessary medical procedures taken care of and will cost closer to $50 to $300. There are a lot of backyard breeders, pet shops and puppy mills supplying dogs to people too. This is not an avenue we would recommend though, firstly you have no idea of its health or its parents health, and secondly funding people to mistreat animals is something most people would not want to be a part of.

Initial costs will include medical needs and items it will need when home. The latter includes a crate, carrier, leash and collar and other items coming to a cost of $120. Medical needs will include shots, a check up, tick and flea prevention, deworming, neutering or spaying and blood tests. These come to about $320.


Medical annual costs such as pet insurance and basic health care come to around $435. Food costs for a good quality dry dog food and treats come to around $75 a year. Of course that figure could be more if you opt to buy top of the range treats and food. Miscellaneous costs for things like grooming, training, license, toys and other items come to about $495 a year. That gives a yearly cost for Cairn ownership of $1005 or more.


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A Cairn Terrier is a sturdy, brave, bold, spirited and affectionate dog. This is a not a fragile lapdog though it is happy to get on your lap for attention and affection. It is able to get along with other pets better than other terriers but still socialization is important as is training. It loves to dig holes, bark and there can be a number of health issues to deal with.

This is a terrier, you can expect the usual chasing, being curious and having a mind of its own. It will sometimes challenge you so be firm and consistent. It is very loyal, and friendly and makes a great companion or family dog as long as you are happy to have a dog with some spirit!

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