What is a Cairn Terrier?

wiseGEEK Writer

The Cairn Terrier is one of the oldest terriers with ancestry in Scotland dating back 500 years. Cairns share close relationship with Skye Terriers, West Highland White and Scottish Terriers. All of these breeds were bred as working dogs, with the specific goal of killing vermin around farms, although sometimes they took an active role in herding sheep. The Cairn Terrier actually comes by its name because Cairns were very good at digging and were often set to work on piles of rock called cairns, which they would avidly dig through to capture any pests.

Anyone who has seen "The Wizard of Oz" might identify Cairn Terriers with Toto.
Anyone who has seen "The Wizard of Oz" might identify Cairn Terriers with Toto.

You might be familiar with the Cairn Terrier as the “Toto dog.” In the movie version of The Wizard of Oz, Toto was played by a Cairn. This little energetic dog isn’t always dark-colored, and comes in a variety of colors or mixes, including black, white, and tan. All black and all white Cairns are considered unacceptable for show, though they can certainly make wonderful pets.

Cairn Terriers historically took an active role in herding sheep.
Cairn Terriers historically took an active role in herding sheep.

A Cairn Terrier is a sturdy dog, typically weighing about 15 pounds (6.8 kg). Puppy mill dogs can be either significantly smaller or quite a bit larger, and should be avoided. The Cairn Terrier enthusiast openly admits the breed is not the best looking dog in the world. "Not bred for looks,” the Cairn does have a somewhat scruffy and tousled appearance. Part of this is due to their harsh, weather resistant outercoat, which can resist brushing. A Cairn Terrier in the ring is normally groomed a little more than a working Cairn, and may have a slightly trimmed face and tail. Normally the dog’s ears and tail are not taped or docked.

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Many people favor the Cairn Terrier as a pet since they are playful and tend to be very good with children. They are also noted for their intelligence and their propensity to dig and hunt. If you have extensive gardens, a Cairn Terrier may not be the best choice since it is likely to devote time to digging the garden up. The Cairn Terrier can do well in apartment settings provided it is given lots of time to exercise and is well trained. The under-exercised Cairn is likely to exhibit extensive chewing and may destroy property since it tends to get bored easily.

While the intelligence of the Cairn Terrier can lead it to trouble, it can also be an extraordinary benefit. These dogs respond very well to training and well into their adult years will be happy to learn new tricks, and to continue to be “puppyish” and boisterous in nature, which can be a delight to kids. Most owners report that their Cairns tend to calm down and become more sedate after a few years, but without training, they can quite easily be a handful.

For active owners, a Cairn Terrier can be a great pet, since the dog’s rough and ready attitude tends to make it willing to play at all times and seasons. The Cairn may be happiest in outdoor settings, with indoor privileges. Some Cairns, though, particularly the smaller ones, may view themselves more as lap dogs and want extensive affection and closeness to their owners.

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