Cairn Terrier
A great cairn terrier

Cairn Terrier


The Cairn Terrier is a breed of dog descended from the Skye Terrier, one of the oldest Scottish terrier dog breeds. They were developed along the western coast, as early as the 16th century, for the purpose of hunting fox and otter. The purest of the breed were found on the Isle of Skye, from which they got their name.

At some point, during the year 1840, Queen Victoria deemed the breed “fancy”. This skyrocketed the dogs’ popularity among the high society. During the late 1800’s, the Skye Terrier made its way to America. Then, in 1887, the American Kennel Club (AKC) recognized the breed officially.

Now, this is where the Cairn Terrier’s history gets a little bit tricky. The ancestors of the Cairn Terrier had existed as far back as the 1500’s, again. During the early 1900’s, though, these dogs were still being called Short-haired Skye Terriers. However, much opposition arose from Skye Terrier breeders. Shortly thereafter, in 1909, the name “Cairn Terrier” came up and the breed was established.

Overall, there were three dog breeds involved in this early 1900’s split off. Skye Terriers, while they used to include numerous terrier breeds, are now their own breed. Other breeds which came from them include Scottish Terriers and West Highland White Terriers.


The Cairn Terrier’s body is small. Their legs are usually very short, and in odd proportion to the body. Cairn Terriers usually measure between 9 and 13 inches, and weigh between 10 to 15 pounds.

The Cairn Terrier’s head is small and round, with pointed, erect ears. Their eyes are usually dark, round, and somewhat hidden by their fur. One very interesting feature of the Cairn Terrier is their purple tongues. Since not many people know this is a common trait for this breed, purebreds are often mistaken as mixed breeds.

The Cairn Terrier has a double-coat, or two separate coats. The undercoat is soft and dense, while the outer coat is harsh and coarse. These coats are also shaggy, which give the dogs a rough appearance. Cairn Terriers come in many different colors, including black, cream, wheaten, red, sandy, and brindled. Brindle Cairn Terriers generally change colors throughout their lifetime. They also become progressively silver or black as they age. Furthermore, while white Cairn Terriers used to be permitted for registration, they are now considered to be West Highland White Terriers, otherwise known as Westies.

Cairn Terriers are considered to be hypoallergenic and tend to shed very little, although frequent grooming is necessary for upkeep. Their average life span is between 12 and 17 years. Lastly, the average litter for the Cairn Terrier consists of anywhere from 2 to 10 puppies.


Cairn Terriers, first of all, are very active and playful. They have a very lively personality. However, this can lead to some behavioral issues along the line. For instance, the Cairn Terrier enjoys digging, even when there is no actual prey present. They may dig anywhere that they have access to, including flower beds, gardens, the yard, a sand box, etc. Owners should be alert as to what their pet is doing, before something gets destroyed. They cannot be blamed for this, however, since the prey instinct has been bred into them for centuries.

Cairn Terriers are also strong. Despite their small size, they are physically able and have a pretty decent amount of hidden strength. Their bodies are also agile, since they were bred for hunting.

Intelligence is another key characteristic when describing Cairn Terriers. They are very smart, easily able to track and catch their prey. This intelligence also makes them easily trainable. Although some Cairn Terriers can act pretty headstrong or free-willed, a patient and responsible owner could easily train them to adapt.

Lastly, Cairn Terriers tend to make wonderful family pets, for several reasons. Again, they are small, so they will not take up much space in the house or cause issues as far as destroying furniture goes. They are also loyal, which means they tend to form extremely strong bonds with their owners and will go to many lengths to please them. This loyalty also translates to children in the house. Cairn Terriers get along well with children, since they are both very friendly and well aware of their limits.

Some behavioral issues or general disobedience can occur. These dogs have developed a pretty bad reputation for being disobedient. However, it is generally agreed upon that improper training is usually to blame in these cases.

Furthermore, the Cairn Terrier has a naturally curious nature, which can help in the training process. However, it could also lead them to explore dangerous areas or run off, so owners must be careful. Allowing for daily exercise, such as walks, will ease the dog.

The Cairn Terrier is an easy breed to take care of as long as the owner knows what they are doing. While yes the time required to train them is a lot, the effort is definitely worth the pay off.

Current Use

Cairn Terriers are no longer used to hunt fox or otter. First of all, people have moved on from hunting those species in general. Secondly, people that still like to take dogs on hunting expeditions with them generally own larger, stronger, and more athletic dogs. That is not to say the Cairn Terrier is not athletic or strong, but rather that they are not necessarily suited for hunting anymore.

Nowadays, people simply keep Cairn Terriers as pets. As was previously stated, with proper training and dedication, the Cairn Terrier can be taught to behave in a variety of environments and do well with all ages.

However, some owners do also like to enter their pets in dog shows and competitions. The Cairn Terrier is no exception. Many Cairn Terrier owners enter them in shows, where they are judged on their appearance and conformity to breed standards. Cairn Terriers also perform well in obedience trials, agility trials, tracking competitions, and more, still depending upon their level of training.