Cairn Terrier
Cairn Terrier Dog Breed
Cairn Terrier Dog Breed
Cairn Terrier Dog Breed
Cairn Terrier Dog Breed
Cairn Terrier puppies
The Cairn may be small, but he’s an active family member who wants to play and play. He is smart, if somewhat independent. The Cairn has a foxy expression and a tough, weather-resistant coat that can be any color but white.

The bright-eyed, up-for-anything Cairn Terrier was bred in Scotland to dig into piles of rocks – the cairns from which he gets his name – in search of vermin. Today he's a full-time family pet and companion, but he's no lap dog. With his head up, ears and tail twitching, he's always game for a long walk, wrestling with the kids, or ridding the backyard of invading squirrels.

The shaggy-coated Cairn only weighs 13 or 14 pounds, but he's a little dog who clearly has no idea just how small he is. He's intelligent and fairly easy to train, with a streak of what some would call independence, but you might call stubbornness.

Cairn Terriers are very affectionate, particularly with children, and while some small dogs can't handle the rough-and-tumble games kids play, the Cairn Terrier loves them. He'll even invent some of his own.

That's not to say every Cairn Terrier will automatically be great with children. Adult supervision of playtime along with training and socializing of the dog are still required. But in most cases, kids and Cairns are a match made in heaven.

With small furry creatures, it's a very different story. The Cairn still remembers rooting out otters, foxes, and other vermin on Highland farms, and he's not likely to make a distinction when it comes to cats, hamsters, and other small animals. Always walk him on leash so he can’t indulge the urge to chase other animals.

The Cairn Terrier is a low-maintenance dog, needing just a weekly combing to keep shedding under control. Cairn Terriers don't do well if they're left alone for long periods, and are not happy as backyard dogs. Let him live as a member of your family, preferably with the company of another dog, or you might find yourself with a lonely, bored, noisy, and destructive nuisance.

Other Quick Facts

  • The Cairn Terrier is a rugged little dog with a shaggy coat, sharply pointed ears, large teeth, and dark eyes. He’s a bit longer than he is tall and has a natural tail, meaning it isn’t docked for length. His coat can be cream, deep red, brindle, light gray, or black.
  • When you get a Cairn puppy, you never know what color he will turn out to be. A Cairn’s coat color can change over the years, often becoming darker with age.

The History of the Cairn Terrier

The Cairn descends from small, rough-coated terriers living in the Scottish highlands, in particular, the Isle of Skye, where they kept farms and barnyards free of rats and other vermin and hunted foxes, otters, and badgers. Back in the 18th century, they were often referred to as shorthaired terriers or little Skye terriers and probably resulted from crosses between the now-extinct white terrier and black and tan terrier.

Until 1873, the various terriers of Scotland were all lumped together under one name: Scotch Terriers. At that time, they were divided into two groups: Dandie Dinmont Terriers and Skye Terriers. The breed we now know as the Cairn fell into the Skye Terrier category, along with the dogs that became the Scottish Terrier and the West Highland White Terrier. The dogs were differentiated mainly by color, and it wasn’t unusual for all three to be born in the same litter.

The scruffy little terriers, which by this time were being called Short-Haired Skyes, kept mostly to their farms and barns until the early 20th century, when people began to exhibit them at dog shows. They were given the name Cairn Terrier in 1912, after the piles of stones that serve as landmarks or memorials in the Highlands. Up until this time, it wasn’t unusual for Cairns and Westies to be crossed, but when the American Kennel Club recognized the Cairn in 1913, it put an end to the practice. Today, Cairns rank 56th among the dogs registered by the AKC.

Cairn Terrier Temperament and Personality

The Cairn might be small, but he’s so confident that it’s easy to forget his size. He has the typical Terrier independence and no-nonsense attitude, but he’s a friendly dog who can adapt to any type of home — from a city apartment to a country farm (both will give him the opportunity to practice his ratting skills). Alert, active, and curious, the Cairn functions as a watchdog, child playmate, and all-round family friend.

When both dog and child have proper supervision and training, Cairns and kids fit together perfectly. Cairns are sturdy and forgiving of accidental bops on the head or stepped-on paws. Still, it’s important to protect them from a toddler who doesn't yet understand how to pet a dog nicely.

Don’t expect the Cairn to be a lap dog, despite his small size. He might give you a minute or two of his time, but he’s got things to do and places to go. Just be sure they don’t involve digging up your garden: his large feet and strong nails — not to mention his terrier instincts — fit this pursuit perfectly.

The Cairn is smart and learns quickly. There’s never any need to yell at him or treat him forcefully; he’ll respond to positive reinforcement in the form of praise, play, and treats as long as he knows you’re in charge. Be firm and consistent in what you ask of him, and he’ll be happy to play follower to your leader. Let him get the idea that you’re wishy-washy, though, and this fearless and tenacious little dog will take it upon himself to run your household. And without training, supervision or appropriate levels of play, he’ll become bored, spending his time chewing, barking and digging to keep himself occupied. Don’t let that happen! Challenge his brain — he has a great one — with puzzle toys and training sessions that are interesting and ever-changing, and keep him active every day with interesting walks or hikes (he is built for scrambling over rocks, after all) and fun playtimes. On wet or snowy days, let him chase a ball indoors or teach him to play hide and seek.

Start training your puppy the day you bring him home. Even at eight weeks old, he is capable of soaking up everything you can teach him. Don’t wait until he is 6 months old to begin training or you will have a more headstrong dog to deal with. If possible, get him into puppy kindergarten class by the time he is 10 to 12 weeks old, and socialize, socialize, socialize. However, be aware that many puppy training classes require certain vaccines (like kennel cough) to be up to date, and many veterinarians recommend limited exposure to other dogs and public places until puppy vaccines (including rabies, distemper and parvovirus) have been completed. In lieu of formal training, you can begin training your puppy at home and socializing him among family and friends until puppy vaccines are completed.

Talk to the breeder and describe exactly what you’re looking for in a dog. Ask for assistance in selecting a puppy. Breeders see the puppies daily and can make uncannily accurate recommendations once they know your lifestyle and personality. Whatever you want from an Cairn, look for one whose parents have nice personalities and who has been well socialized from early puppyhood.

What You Need to Know About Cairn Terrier Health

All dogs have the potential to develop genetic health problems, just as all people have the potential to inherit disease. Run from any breeder who does not offer a health guarantee on puppies, who tells you that the breed has no known problems, or who keeps puppies isolated from the main part of the household for health reasons. A reputable breeder will be honest and open about health problems in the breed and the frequency with which they occur in her lines.

Cairn Terriers are fairly healthy, but they can be affected by certain genetic health problems. For one, Cairns can suffer from an enzyme deficiency that leads to nerve cell death known as globoid cell leukodystrophy, or lysosomal storage disease. A genetic test is available to identify carriers of this disease.

Many small dog breeds, including the Cairn, suffer from Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease (LCPD), a bone disorder that requires surgery, as well as portosystemic shunts, a liver defect that usually requires surgical correction. There are no screening tests for these conditions.

Other conditions that affect the Cairn Terrier (and lack screening tests) include craniomandibular osteopathy, allergies, and diabetes. Your puppy's breeder should be willing – eager, in fact – to go over the health histories of his parents and their close relatives and discuss how prevalent those particular health concerns are in his lines.

Careful breeders screen their breeding dogs for genetic disease and breed only the healthiest and best-looking specimens, but sometimes Mother Nature has other ideas. A puppy can develop one of these diseases despite proper breeding practices. Advances in veterinary medicine mean that in most cases the dogs can still live a quality life. If you’re getting a puppy, ask the breeder about the ages of the dogs in her lines and the most common causes of death. For more health information, go to the Cairn Terrier Club of America.

Remember that after you’ve taken a new puppy into your home, you have the power to protect him from one of the most common health problems: obesity. Keeping a Cairn at an appropriate weight is one of the easiest ways to extend his life. Make the most of your preventive abilities to help ensure a healthier dog for life.

Finding a Cairn Terrier

Whether you want to go with a breeder or get your dog from a shelter or rescue, here are some things to keep in mind.

Choosing a Cairn Breeder

Finding a quality breeder is the key to finding the right puppy. A good breeder will match you with the right puppy and will have completed all of the certifications necessary to screen out health problems. He or she should be more interested in placing pups in the right homes than making big bucks. Be wary of breeders who only tell you the good things about the breed.

Good breeders will welcome your questions about temperament, health clearances and what the dogs are like to live with. They'll come back at you with questions of their own about what you’re looking for in a dog and what kind of life you plan to provide. A good breeder can tell you about the history of the breed, explain why one puppy is considered pet quality while another is not, and discuss what health problems affect the breed as well as the steps she takes take to avoid those problems. A breeder should want to be a resource for you throughout your dog’s life.

Look for more information about the Cairn and start your search for a good breeder at the website of the Cairn Terrier Club of America. Choose a breeder who has agreed to abide by the CTCA’s code of ethics, which prohibits the sale of puppies to or through pet stores and calls for the breeder to obtain recommended health clearances on dogs before breeding them.

Avoid breeders who only seem interested in how quickly they can unload a puppy or whether your credit card will clear. Breeders who offer puppies at one price “with papers” and at a lower price “without papers” are unethical. You should also bear in mind that buying a puppy from websites that offer to ship your dog to you immediately can be a risky venture, as it leaves you no recourse if what you get isn’t exactly what you expected. Put at least as much effort into researching your puppy as you would into choosing a new car or expensive appliance. It will save you money in the long run.

Lots of reputable breeders have websites, so how can you tell who’s good and who’s not? Red flags include over-availability, multiple litters on the premises, a choice of any puppy, and the ability to pay online with a credit card. Those things are convenient, but they are almost never associated with reputable breeders.

Whether you’re planning to get your new best friend from a breeder, a pet store, or another source, don’t forget that old adage “let the buyer beware”. Disreputable breeders and facilities that deal with puppy mills can be hard to distinguish from reliable operations. There’s no 100% guaranteed way to make sure you’ll never purchase a sick puppy, but researching the breed (so you know what to expect), checking out the facility (to identify unhealthy conditions or sick animals), and asking the right questions can reduce the chances of heading into a disastrous situation. And don’t forget to ask your veterinarian, who can often refer you to a reputable breeder, breed rescue organization, or other reliable source for healthy puppies. 

The cost of a Cairn puppy varies depending on the breeder’s locale, whether the pup is male or female, what titles his parents have, and whether he is best suited for the show ring or a pet home. The puppy you buy should have been raised in a clean home environment, from parents with health clearances and conformation (show) and, ideally, working titles to prove that they are good specimens of the breed. Puppies should be temperament tested, vetted, dewormed, and socialized to give them a healthy, confident start in life.

Before you decide to buy a puppy, consider whether an adult Cairn might better suit your needs and lifestyle. Puppies are loads of fun, but they require a lot of time and effort. An adult may already have some training and will probably be less active, destructive, and demanding than a puppy. With an adult, you know more about what you’re getting in terms of personality and health and you can find adults through breeders or shelters. If you are interested in acquiring an older dog through breeders, ask them about purchasing a retired show dog or if they know of an adult dog who needs a new home. If you want to adopt a dog, read the advice below on how to do that.

Adopting a Dog from Cairn Rescue or a Shelter

Whether you want to go with a breeder or get your dog from a shelter or rescue, here are some things to keep in mind.

1. Use the Web

Sites like and can have you searching for a Cairn in your area in no time flat. The site allows you to be very specific in your requests (housetraining status, for example) or very general (all the Cairns available on Petfinder across the country). AnimalShelter can help you find animal rescue groups in your area. Also some local newspapers have “pets looking for homes” sections you can review.

Social media is another great way to find a dog. Post on your Facebook page that you are looking for a specific breed so that your entire community can be your eyes and ears.

2. Reach Out to Local Experts

Start talking with all the pet pros in your area about your desire for a Cairn. That includes vets, dog walkers, and groomers. When someone has to make the tough decision to give up a dog, that person will often ask her own trusted network for recommendations.

3. Talk to Breed Rescue

Networking can help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. Most people who love Cairns love all Cairns. That’s why breed clubs have rescue organizations devoted to taking care of homeless dogs. The Cairn Terrier Club of America’s rescue group can help you find a dog that may be the perfect companion for your family. You can also search online for other Cairn rescues in your area.

4. Key Questions to Ask

You now know the things to discuss with a breeder, but there are also questions you should discuss with shelter or rescue group staff or volunteers before you bring home a dog. These include:

What is his energy level?

How is he around other animals?

How does he respond to shelter workers, visitors and children?

What is his personality like?

What is his age?

Is he housetrained?

Has he ever bitten or hurt anyone that they know of?

Are there any known health issues?

Wherever you acquire your Cairn, make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. In states with “puppy lemon laws,” be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.

Puppy or adult, take your Cairn to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot problems and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues.