The Cairn Terrier!

This feisty little dog is full of personality and spunk! A big dog in a little package! The vivacious little Cairn Terrier is an active, hardy, small working terrier. He is free in movement, strong, but not heavily built. His head is shorter and wider than any other terriers and well furnished with hair giving a general foxy expression. He is a wonderful family dog, but will always remember his ancestry as a "sporting terrier". He makes a very active, inquisitive and "ready to go" dog. He is a great dog for the house and is very good with children. Energetic and always on the watch, he will alert you to the presence of strangers by growling.

From our experts:

Pros: Cairn Terriers are outgoing and courageous.
They can sometimes be a bit feisty with other dogs. They are independent and while they look to their masters for instruction, if none are given the Cairn will make decisions on his own - sometimes the wrong ones.

Some Quick Facts:

Life Expectancy:
13-14 years

Energy Level:
Very high.

Living Conditions:
Indoors; fine for small apartments but needs chance to run outdoors

Above Average

Exercise Needs:
Needs chance to freely run and jump.

Breed Group:


9-11 inches

12-14 pounds

Standard Hair Colors:
Any color but white; dark ears, muzzle, tail tip desired

National breed club:
The Cairn Terrier Club of America

Cairn Terrier Breed History

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 their appearance. Such characteristics as courage, tenacity and intelligence, housed in a sturdy body clad in a weather-proof coat, armed with big teeth set 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 remained the closest to the original small working terrier, bolting the fox, otter and weasel, sharing the meager fare of the crofter's household.

Cairn Terrier Appearance

The Cairn Terrier may be any color but white. The breed is double coated with a hard weather resistant outer coat and a soft, short undercoat. The outer coat should be striped out once a year to promote a new coat. The average size of the Cairn is between 10" - 12" at the shoulder and approximately 1.5 X that in length. Weights may vary but generally they should weight around 16 lbs.

Cairn Terrier Personality Traits

The Cairn Terrier is a sensible, confident little dog, independent but friendly. 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 years, 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.

Energy Level & Exercise Needs

Cairns are active little dogs! They love to fetch a ball, but are content with two or three walks a day, of about 1/2 hr each. . The Cairn is just as independent today as when he hunted fox and badger in the Highlands. For this reason it is best to have a fenced yard, or be willing to take a few walks, on a lead, every day. (4 out of 5)

What activities would this breed excel in?
Fly ball, agility, earth dog trials.

Cairn Terrier Trainability:
Cairn Terriers have a desire to please, but will take advantage if allowed. (3 out of 5)

Noise Level:
Cairns can be pretty vocal, but can be taught to not bark. If they are permitted members of this breed will be barkers. It is best to start when they are pups to teach them when it is not permissible to bark. (4 out of 5)

Living Conditions

Though the Cairn is small, he's not much for pampered life. He is likely to wriggle out of laps or long hugs. He prefers to explore and play lively games, and can be equally happy in the city or on the farm. Ultimately, the Cairn deeply desires to be a part of his beloved family, even if he does seem independent at times.

Grooming & Shedding

Only the undercoat sheds and that is easily controlled with regular brushing. As mentioned before, the old, dead coat should be stripped (pulled) out once a year. Never use a clipper, except on an older dog. Clipping only promotes the continuation of dead coat growth. (2 out of 5)

Health Issues

Although Cairns are hearty little dogs, the breed is still prone to allergies. Cataracts are another concern as well.

Random Bits About This Breed

Kid Friendly Breed?
This breed is not recommended for homes with children under 6.

3 facts most people don’t know about this breed:

  • Cairns are great therapy dogs.
  • Toto from “The Wizard of Oz” was a Cairn.
  • Red and grey brindle cairns will turn almost black by the age of 4.

This breed is ideal for people who...
like to take long walks with their dog.

This breed is not ideal for people who...
who want to let the dog out in the morning, go back and have a cup of coffee, and expect the dog to be waiting at the door when they come back.

Is there anything else The Dog Guide readers should know about this breed if they may be interested in owning one?
Only buy from a reputable breeder or adopt from a breed rescue. Contact either the Cairn Terrier Club of America, or one of the Regional Cairn Clubs located throughout the country, for a list of breeders. Information may be found on the CTCA website -

If you liked this dog…

...and you are looking for the distinctive terrier personality, the Australian Terrier, or the Norfolk may just do as well. These are feisty, energetic dogs and also have wiry coats that require special grooming known as stripping in order to maintain a characteristic appearance.


Special thanks to Kenneth Kauffman of the Cairn Terrier Club of America for help developing this article on Cairn Terriers.

Cairn Terrier


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