The Breed

Breed Information


Cairn Terrier: Did You Know?

Meet the 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 Terrier (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 Terrier 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. 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.

The Cairn Terrier comes in a variety of colors. All are attractive, and you will love your Cairn Terrier 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 Cairn Terriers continue for years, most brindles eventually becoming very dark, bordering on black. Some wheatens and reds also darken while others may remain light.  Some examples of the different color variations are as follows:


Light Brindle

Darker Brindle


Light Brindle

Dark Red Brindle


Rich Red

Red Brindle


Grey Brindle

Dark Brindle

Standing 9-1/2 to 10 inches tall and weighing 13 to 14 pounds, the Cairn Terrier 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 Cairn Terriers are truly alike; each has distinct personality and character differences. As a rule though, Cairn Terriers 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 Terrier 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.

Cairn Terriers 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 Terrier 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 Terrier cannot learn if his owner takes the time to teach him. Because Cairn Terriers 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.

Cairn Terriers 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 Terrier 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 Terrier MUST be exercised on a leash, as it is impossible to train a Cairn Terrier to resist the urge to chase squirrels, cats, rabbits, other dogs, etc. (remember, Cairns Terriers were bred to hunt!).

Walking is excellent exercise for Cairn Terriers and their owners. A brisk walk daily, on leash, is ideal. From the Cairn Terrier'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 Terrier 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. Cairn Terriers easily become overweight, at least in part because they are so endearing as they beg for treats.


Please see the "Grooming" link below for grooming tips for your Cairn Terrier.


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Updated 02/06/2023