This is a working terrier, and is hardy, game, and active. Cairn Terriers are short-legged, and longer than tall, but not as low to the ground as the Sealyham or Scottish Terriers. Their build enables them to fit into close quarters in pursuit of their quarry. Their head is shorter and wider than any other terrier, giving them good jaw strength. The weather-resistant coat consists of a soft, close undercoat and a profuse, harsh outer coat. Furnishing around the face adds to its somewhat foxy expression.
One of a family of short-legged terriers developed on the Scottish Isle of Skye, the Cairn Terrier probably still resembles the ancestral form to a greater degree than others descended from the same origins. These dogs seem to have existed since the fifteenth century and were used to hunt fox, badger, and otter. The dogs were adept at bolting otters from the cairns (piles of stone that served as landmarks or memorials).
The dogs came in a variety of colors, ranging from white to gray to red, and were all considered Scotch Terriers when they began to enter the show ring. In 1873, they were divided into Dandie Dinmont and Skye Terriers, with the Cairn in the latter group. This group was later again divided into Skye and Hard-haired Terriers in 1881, and the Hard-haired Terriers eventually separated into Scotch, West Highland White, and the breed eventually known as the Cairn. At one time, the Cairn was called the Short-haired Skye, then the Cairn Terrier or Skye, and finally, around 1912, the Cairn Terrier.
Some of the most influential early Cairns were all white, but white, as well as mixing with West Highland Whites, was banned by the 1920s. The breed became quite popular in England, and fairly popular in America, gaining its greatest fame as the dog playing Toto in the Wizard of Oz. As one of the more natural and less sculpted terriers, the breed is highly regarded by those who appreciate a working terrier. Perhaps the motto of the British breed club sums it up best: “The best little pal in the world.”
The Cairn is the essence of terrier; plucky, spirited, bold, inquisitive, hardy, clever, stubborn, and scrappy. Cairns are responsive to their family’s wishes, however, and try to please; in fact, they are surprisingly sensitive. These dogs can be good pets as long as they are given daily physical and mental exercise in a safe area. They enjoy playing with children, but can be assertive with other dogs and chases small animals, so introduce carefully. They love to sniff, explore, and hunt. They dig; some bark.
Despite their small size, Cairns need outdoor exercise every day, either a moderate walk on leash, a fun game in the yard, or an excursion in a safe area. Their wire coat needs combing once weekly, plus professional grooming at least twice yearly.