Cairn Terrier

Over 200 years ago, on the ancient Isle of Skye and in the Scottish Highlands, the ancestors of today’s Cairn Terrier earned their keep routing vermin from the rock piles (called cairns) commonly found on Scottish farmland. These early terriers were highly prized and bred for their working ability, not appearance. Such characteristics as courage, tenacity and intelligence, housed in a sturdy body clad in a weather-proof coat, armed with big teeth in strong jaws, were sought generation after generation. Gradually the breeds known as the Scottish Terrier and the West Highland White evolved and were named. The Cairn (the last to be formally named) remained the closest to the original small working terrier, bolting the fox, otter and weasel, sharing the meager fare of the crofter’s household.

Today the Cairn Terrier in America is a sensible, confident little dog, independent but friendly with everyone he meets. He may be found in an apartment, suburban home, or on a farm. 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 Terrier Club of America is dedicated to promoting the welfare of the Cairn Terrier and wants to help you decide if a Cairn Terrier is the right dog to share your life.


The immediate impression should be that of a small, shaggy, alert dog, head, tail and ears up, eyes shining with intelligence, poised and ready for anything.

As illustrated herein, the Cairn comes in a variety of colors. All are attractive, and you will love your Cairn whatever color he turns out to be. It can be difficult if not impossible to predict adult color based on the puppy coat. Color changes in many Cairns continue for years, most brindles eventually becoming very dark, bordering on black. Some wheatens and reds also darken while others may remain light.

Standing 9-1/2 to 10 inches tall and weighing 13 to 14 pounds, the Cairn is truly a big dog in a small package…..small enough to carry easily and to fit comfortably on your lap, but tough enough to enjoy romping with children. Their sturdy appearance makes them especially appropriate as a man’s pet; no man who has ever owned one was embarrassed by his “little” dog.

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 must know from the first that someone else is in charge. If he has any question about that, he’ll do his best to run the house himself. Firm, loving and consistent discipline is the key to a good relationship with your Cairn Terrier

Cairns seem to have an inborn affinity for children. They are physically very tough, and forgive or overlook mishaps and stepped-on feet with characteristic generosity of spirit. They should not, however, be teased or mistreated by children, and close supervision of small children and puppies is essential. Puppies need time away from even the best behaved children and should be provided with a place where they can rest undisturbed until they are ready to play again. A “kennel” or crate is highly recommended. Used properly, a crate ensures the puppy’s safety and facilitates housetraining as well. A Cairn thrives on attention and training and suffers from lack of it. Without training, he will be bored and destructive, barking to help relieve the tedium. There is very little a Cairn cannot learn if his owner takes the time to teach him. Because Cairns are highly intelligent, training sessions should be fun and challenging, not overly repetitious. They do love to dig, and flowerbeds are hard to resist; don’t tempt your puppy by leaving him alone in a manicured yard.

Cairns are not suited to living outside. They are far more rewarding pets when they live in close contact with the family. Being left “tied out” in an unfenced yard can be dangerous to the Cairn as he is vulnerable to any attack that he might invite from larger dogs. The safest arrangement is a securely fenced yard and supervision when he is in it. 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. (remember, 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. Encourage your puppy’s natural ball playing talents, and you’ll have the perfect indoor exercise when the weather prohibits walking.

Health and Feeding Requirements

The Cairn Terrier is a basically healthy dog, and frequently lives 14 to 15 years or more. To contribute to his longevity and health a Cairn should be kept trim and active. His diet should consist of a premium brand of dry dog food. NO “generic” dog food, please! Table scraps should not be fed, and the amount of dog food must be carefully monitored. Most adult dogs maintain their weight on 1/2 to 2/3 cup of quality food a day. Dog biscuit treats should be kept to a maximum of 2-3 daily. Cairns easily become overweight, at least in part because they are so endearing as they beg for treats.


Maintaining the Cairn’s shaggy appearance is not difficult. An hour or so of grooming each week will keep his coat in good condition.


Shedding is minimal if the dog is thoroughly brushed and combed weekly, and infrequently bathed. Preparation for the show ring is comparatively simple, also. It is important to keep a Cairn free of fleas, as many Cairns are allergic to flea bites.

Which Puppy

Cairn puppiesWhen you find a breeder you respect, spend time discussing your family and your lifestyle, and then trust your breeder to pick a puppy for you. The breeder has spent weeks or months with the puppies and knows their personality and temperament. The reputable breeder wants you to have the puppy that best suits you, and with which you will be happy. If you aren’t happy the breeder knows the puppy won’t be happy, either. (Most reputable breeders require unwanted puppies be returned to them.)


Most breeders do not sell puppies younger than 10 weeks of age, and many will not sell a puppy under 12 weeks, or even older, depending on the new owner’s living arrangements and lifestyle. If your breeder suggests that an older puppy or even a young adult would be better for you, keep an open mind and consider the possibility. People who are away from home for eight hours or more a day are not ideally suited to raising a very young puppy. Breeders sometimes have puppies that are older…..six, eight, or ten months. These have often been reserved by the breeder as potential show prospects. These older puppies will be housetrained much sooner than a very young puppy. If they have been socialized, they may be the ideal choice for a working family. In some circumstances an adult dog, possibly already housetrained, may be available. Cairns are very adaptable to new circumstances and quickly make themselves part of their new family, enabling those who could not raise a puppy to have the company of a Cairn.