Cairn Terrier

Dog Breeds List » Dog Breeds » Cairn Terrier

Cairn Terrier Facts

  • Breed Type: Purebred
  • Size: Small
  • Lifespan: 12 – 15 years
  • Temperament: Active, Assertive, Fearless, Gay, Hardy, Intelligent
  • Colors: Black, Brindle, Cream, Grey, Red, Wheaten
  • Hypoallergenic: Yes
  • Related Dog Breeds:
    • Scottish Terrier
    • Cairn Terrier
    • West Highland White Terrier

Cairn Terrier drawing by Dog Breeds List

A lot of people may not know what a Cairn Terrier is if you ask them. But if you mention Toto from The Wizard of Oz, you’re sure to get a face of dawning comprehension. This dog breed may not be super well known by name, but Toto sure did make Cairn Terriers famous.

And after watching this timeless character, you’re probably going to want a Toto to call your own!

It’s no wonder why.

Cairn Terriers can make great companions. They’re happy, lively, and full of spunk. But since they’re a terrier, they can also be full of trouble. They’ll need a confident owner to train them and help bring out their best selves.

If you’re up for the task, then good for you! You can achieve your dream of owning a “Toto Terrier”. But if not, that’s totally understandable…terriers aren’t for everyone, after all.


The Cairn Terrier originated on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.

Like this breed’s other Scottish cousins, the Cairn Terrier’s past is an unclear one.

For centuries, terriers served as vermin hunters in Scotland. But it’s hard to say exactly how the individual terrier breeds originated. Their histories all intertwine. For years, they were all clumped together under the term “Scotch terrier”.

Take the Cairn, for example.

This specific type of terrier has existed as early as the 1600’s. But it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that the Cairn (and all the other Scotch terrier dogs) began gaining their own identities. In fact, the name Cairn Terrier was not officially adopted until 1912.

The name “Cairn” is very fitting, however…

Centuries ago in Scotland, cairns, or rock piles, were used as markers for graves and memorials. These stones made the perfect dwelling place for unwanted critters. At least until the Cairn Terrier came to the rescue.

Cairn Terriers were specifically bred to drive rodents out from the cairns that dotted the Scottish Highlands.

Talk about the perfect breed name!

But the Cairn’s journey didn’t stop with earning a classy title. The breed made its way to the United States and in 1913 was recognized by the AKC. Then in 1939, he made himself famous as Dorothy’s little Toto dog.

Are Cairn Terriers Good Family Dogs?

Cairn Terriers can make excellent family dogs.

The breed is very sweet and affectionate, especially with children. He’s a sturdy dog that can handle (and enjoys) children’s roughhousing play. This is a breed that also doesn’t mind the high-pitched squeals that come with kids. He’ll want to jump right in and be a part of the excitement!

With very small children, though, the Cairn may not be recommended.

While he loves respectful play with older kids, little baby hands that pick, poke, and pull could get snapped at.

That’s not to say that the two can’t coexist, however.

You’ll just need to keep tabs on both dog and baby. Always monitor their interactions, and never leave a dog alone in the same room with a small child.   

But all in all, the Cairn Terrier makes a fantastic companion to children. (He did make a great pal for Dorothy, after all!) He just needs some supervision, and kids need to understand how to treat a pet.

But that goes for all dogs!

Another thing you should know:

Cairn Terriers expect to be a part of your family, and they thrive on your company. The breed won’t do well if left alone for long periods of time. So if you and the family are gone a lot of the day, you may want to consider a different breed or look at doggy day care options.

As for living situations, the Cairn Terrier is very adaptable. He’d enjoy a yard. (What dog wouldn’t?) But he will do well in an apartment, too, so long as he gets sufficient exercise.


While having your own little Toto sounds exciting, it’s important for you to understand how to care for a Cairn before committing to get one.

As with any dog, a Cairn Terrier has a few basic needs that you’ll have to provide for.

These include nutrition, grooming, exercise, training, and health.


Like all dogs, Cairn Terriers need a balanced diet to stay healthy.

You should feed your Cairn twice daily on a schedule.

Don’t leave food out for your dog all the time as this doesn’t allow you to watch how much he is eating. You don’t want him to eat himself into oblivion, after all!

The amount of food you need to give your Cairn is determined by activity level, metabolism, age, and overall health. In other words, the exact amount to feed varies from dog to dog, even within the same breed.

As a general rule:

An adult Cairn Terrier should eat between ½ to 1 cup of high-quality dog food, divided into two meals, daily.

For further reference you can check out the guide listed on your dog’s food bag. You may also want to talk to your veterinarian about exactly how much your individual dog should be eating.

Again, several factors affect feeding amounts, and each individual dog is different. But these tips should give you a good starting point.


The Cairn Terrier is fairly easy to maintain when it comes to grooming.

The breed has a double coat, which is made up of a soft, dense undercoat and a rough topcoat.

To maintain the coat’s coarse appearance, show Cairns are hand stripped periodically. This is a time-intensive project that requires pulling dead hair out by the roots in order to encourage new hairs to grown in.

But don’t worry, if your Cairn is going to be a pet only, then hand stripping isn’t necessary.

It’s much simpler to opt for a simple trim two to three times a year. You can learn to do this yourself or have a professional do it. (Just be aware that clipping instead of stripping does make for a softer coat.)  

A regular haircut isn’t all your Cairn Terrier needs, though.

You’ll need to brush your pup weekly to keep him looking his best, as well as to remove dirt and tangles.   

As for bathing, the Cairn Terrier only needs a bath every three months or so.

Too frequent of bathing and you’ll end up softening your Cairn’s naturally rough coat. So try to only bathe him when necessary.

Your Cairn Terrier will also need the basic grooming care that all other breeds require:

  • Brush his teeth at least once a week to keep his teeth as brilliantly white as his coat.
  • Check the ears regularly for signs of irritation or infection.
  • And trim his nails when needed.


As a terrier, the Cairn is teeming with energy! And if you don’t give him a chance to release that energy, he’s going to find a way to do so himself.

(Hint: your house could get destroyed!)

So you’ll want to make sure to give him his daily dose of exercise. Thankfully, since he’s small in size, it doesn’t take an insane amount of activity to keep him happy.

The Cairn Terrier needs about 40 to 60 minutes of exercise every day.

A simple daily walk or two will do the trick.

Or a few serious play sessions.

And don’t forget to let him into a fenced yard or take him to the dog park on occasion so that he can have a good run!

If you’re interested in dog sports, agility is right up the Cairn Terrier’s alley.

Since he’s so intelligent, such a sport will serve to work his mind and body. Or you may want to look at flyball or earthdog activities.  

Treat puzzles and games like hide-and-seek are also great ways to get your pup thinking. And training is of course another way to work your dog.  

Speaking of training…


I’m sorry to say that as awesome as a Cairn Terrier sounds…they aren’t the easiest to train.

But aren’t they an intelligent breed?

Yes! They are. But..

Intelligence doesn’t always correlate to trainability. In fact, with Cairn Terriers, it’s their intelligence that makes them hard to train.

Bred to work solo hunting vermin, this is a stubborn, independent breed that’s used to doing his own thing.

But don’t worry, training a Cairn is by no means impossible. It just requires a lot of time, patience, and dedication.

You’ll need to be firm when training a Cairn Terrier.

I can guarantee that at some point your Cairn is going to test your limits and boundaries. So show him who’s boss.

Teach him basic obedience.

Give him rules to follow.

Then be consistent and enforce those rules. Otherwise your Cairn will start thinking he can get away with things!

It may take some time, but once you’ve established that you’re a firm and confident leader, your Cairn will begin learning new tricks in no time. He might even start becoming eager to please!

Being firm with your Cairn does not mean being harsh.

Cairn Terriers can be sensitive, and they’ll become fearful if treated poorly.

It’s best to use only positive reinforcement techniques with your Cairn.

In other words, look for good behavior and reward with praise and treats instead of roughly punishing your pup for mistakes.

Cairn Terrier Health Issues

Cairn Terriers are a moderately healthy breed. They usually live to be between 12 and 15 years of age.

Like all dogs, the Cairn is prone to certain conditions and diseases. These include the following:

  • Craniomandibular Osteopathy (excessive bone growth in lower jaw)
  • Cryptorchidism
  • Globoid Cell Leukodystrophy
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease
  • Patellar Luxation
  • Ocular Melanosis
  • Portosystemic Liver Shunt
  • Allergies
  • Cataracts
  • Hip dysplasia
  • Progressive retinal atrophy

More Important Things to Know About Cairn Terriers

1. Not a Lap Dog

If you’re looking for a little dog to hang out on your lap all day, then the Cairn Terrier is definitely not the pooch for you.

He may be small and furry, but he was made to go, not to lounge.

That isn’t to say you’ll never get a snuggle out of him. But you’ll have to take what you can get and not get too disappointed if he suddenly decides to go do his own thing. Don’t get me wrong:

Cairn Terriers love their people, but they also like their independence.

But just because you won’t get 24/7 snuggles doesn’t mean your Cairn doesn’t love you. In fact, Cairn Terriers are very affectionate. They simply have their own way of showing it.

Like, literally.

You can expect to see a little pink tongue quite frequently because Cairns love to give kisses! They’re one of the more licky breeds out there, in fact.

So get ready for lots of wet Cairn lovin’!

2. The Digger

True to their terrier nature, the Cairn Terrier is a digger.

In fact, he’s built for it.

The Cairn Terrier’s front paws are extra padded and are bigger than his rear paws. Back in the day, these traits served the Cairn well as he dug around rock piles in search of his prey.

But nowadays, those designer paws can be problematic. Especially since that instinct to dig is still as strong as ever.

If you have a garden and you have a Cairn Terrier, be prepared to very quickly not have a garden.

Or, if you don’t like that unfortunate option, put some work in to protect your plants. Tall planting boxes are a win, as is a separately fenced-off garden area.

And be sure your main yard is extra secure for your Cairn’s sake!

Invest in a good fence that goes at least a foot into the ground. Or line your above-the-ground fence with some bricks. You don’t want your little pup digging his way out of your yard.

While training can help moderate most terrier characteristics, digging is one that is not easily remedied.

Rather than fighting against the odds, why not try setting aside a special place for your Cairn to dig?

A sandbox is a pretty good option. Encourage him to use his designated digging area by burying his favorite toy or some tasty treats for him to find. Your lawn would probably appreciate it!

3. A Faithful (And Friendly) Watchdog

Along with the digging, you can expect your Cairn Terrier to be a barker.

In general, this breed is not considered a problem barker. But like most dogs, he will likely use his vocal chords more than desired if he becomes bored or lonely. So make sure to give him the attention and exercise he needs to avoid nuisance barking.

Properly cared for, though, the Cairn is not a yappy dog. Still, he does make a very good watchdog despite his small stature. You’ll never have a visitor go unnoticed again, that’s for sure!

He’s always on the lookout, and he loves to alert to any new activity he may notice. But the Cairn Terrier is not a mean breed. On the contrary, he’s very friendly! Once a guest comes into your house, a Cairn Terrier will usually come tail a’ wagging, eager to make a new friend.

Even still, if he feels threatened, this dog will not hesitate to defend his territory if need be.

Early socialization will be key to helping your Cairn distinguish between friend and foe.   

4. Born to Hunt

The Cairn Terrier was bred to get out, dig up, and chase down vermin.

And that instinct is still strong. If your pup sees something small and furry, he’s going to run after it without a second thought.

So keep a hold of him!

Like his terrier cousins, the Cairn Terrier does not do well off leash.

In fact, he really shouldn’t be trusted off leash at all. Even when well-trained, this breed is likely to ignore your shouts when hot on a rodent’s trail. So avoid issues from the beginning, and keep him securely tied to you when in unfenced areas.

That hunting instinct goes for around the house, too. If you’ve got small pets like hamsters or rabbits, be sure to keep them separated from your Cairn. Trust me, the two aren’t going to get along very well.

5. Good With Cats (Mostly)

Despite his unfortunate reputation for munching on small critters, the Cairn Terrier actually does pretty well with cats.

This is especially true if your Cairn was raised with then. But even if that wasn’t the case, the breed can usually learn to adapt to a feline family member.

Cats outside your home are another story…

The Cairn may not chase his cat brother around the house. But he’s not going to miss a good opportunity to hit up the neighbor’s cat for a game of chase. So be aware of that.  

6. Mr. Stubborn

Like other terriers, the Cairn is a confident, stubborn dog that’s highly intelligent. And such a combination makes for an, uh, entertaining personality, to say the least.

Personally, I love that terrier feistiness, but it’s true that terriers aren’t for everyone.    

They can be troublesome when it comes to training. And the Cairn Terrier is no different.

He’ll need a firm, confident owner that can show him who’s in charge.

But be aware:

Treating your Cairn harshly is definitely not the way to show him you mean business. Instead, stick with positive reinforcement techniques for best results.

You’ll also need to set rules and begin training early with your Cairn puppy. And you’ll want to continue training him throughout his life.

He’s smart and unlikely to forget the rules, but he’s going to try to push the boundaries if you become lenient.

So keep up that training and always be consistent!

7. Boss Dog

Another terrier trait:


The Cairn Terrier is a dog that firmly believes he’s bigger than he actually is.

In general, the breed gets along okay with other dogs, but you’ll want to keep an eye on him at the dog park. He can be bossy towards other canines, which doesn’t always land him in the best of situations. Especially since he’s not afraid to stand his ground against bigger dogs.

Just something to keep in mind.

8. “Don’t Touch My Stuff!”

Being the little scrapper that he is, the Cairn Terrier can be possessive of food and toys.

This can be a problem if you have other animals or small children in the home. A Cairn may snap if he feels his possessions are being threatened.

This is an issue that can escalate without proper training.

You’ll need to teach your Cairn from puppyhood to not be so possessive of his things. A good way to do this is by slowly teaching him that if he loses something good, he’ll get something better.

In other words:

Teach your Cairn that taking away his toys or his food bowl means he’ll get something more appealing in return.

A tasty treat is much more alluring than his ball or dry kibbles.

Over time, your Cairn will come to expect a big reward for getting his things taken away. So he’s less likely to snap and more likely to just look at you with big, hopeful eyes.

Of course this training should be one of many precautions. You’ll also need to teach your kids to respect a dog’s space and to not steal things away from him.

9. Enough Energy and Liveliness to Last a Lifetime

The Cairn Terrier is an active, sturdy dog that has a happy-go-lucky sort of outlook on life. He loves going out on adventures, and he’d never miss a chance to explore.

And thankfully, those things don’t really change as he gets older.

The Cairn is one of those lucky breeds that ages gracefully.

So there’s a very good chance he’ll still be the same chipper pup well into his teen years.

10. “There’s No Place Like Home”

Sure, little Toto loves going on adventures to all sorts of new places. But at the end of the day, he’s just happy to be around his people.

This is definitely a dog that doesn’t like to be left out of things.

Whether you’re hanging out at home or going hiking, your Cairn will want to go with you. He’s a big people-lover, especially when it comes to his own people. Having you around is his number one priority.

It probably goes without saying, but the Cairn Terrier is best as an indoor dog.

He’d be unhappy living out in the yard all the time. And he’d likely find a way to escape in search of something better, anyways.

Be sure to make this dog a true part of your family if you’re going to get one.  

11. What Are My Color Options?

When you think of a Cairn Terrier, you probably think of little black Toto.

But black isn’t the only thing Cairns come in. In fact, you have lots of options when it comes to coat color:

  • Black
  • Cream
  • Grey
  • Red
  • Silver
  • Wheaten

And to further complicate it, these coat colors can be either solid or brindle. Plus, there’s also a silver wheaten and red wheaten variety.  

All are accepted by the AKC, so good luck choosing your favorite color!

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