Cairn Terrier

The Cairn Terrier is among the oldest terrier breeds. These active working dogs were originally bred to root out foxes and other small furry creatures. They are fearless and alert animals that love to be able to explore and scavenge. Hardy and intelligent, the Cairn Terrier makes a fiercely loyal companion and playful friend. Read on to learn more about the Cairn Terrier.

Description of the Cairn Terrier

The Cairn Terrier is small and energetic. Their short wiry fur is quite weather resistant and perfect for their love of digging and being outside.

Their working genes means they are quick and active, always keeping a sharp eye out for any signs of trouble. The Cairn Terrier has small pointed ears perfect for picking up the sounds of distant animals and their muscled body makes them a lot stronger and hardier than they may appear!

This terrier has long been known for its independent and fearless nature. Their name comes from their original duty of digging into cairns — rock pilings that marked graves or boundaries in the Scottish Highlands long ago — to root out small furry creatures. Their courage, toughness, and vigilance make them an excellent breed for this type of work and means they are curious and active dogs.

These dogs come in all colors except white, and can be recognized by their pointy ears, wiry course coat, and small size. They often change colors as they age, so don’t be surprised if your brindle pup becomes solid or some other transformation happens.

Life Expectancy and Size

This hardy dog lives an average of 13 – 15 years, and is a generally healthy breed. Their active nature keeps them strong and fit; with proper diet and exercise you can expect your Cairn Terrier to live well into its teens. But, as with all breeds, the Cairn Terrier can still be prone to certain hereditary and environmental problems.

Working with a reputable breeder to screen for possible genetic issues, and ensuring proper environmental conditions for your Cairn Terrier, can help you be prepared for potential problems and give your pup the healthiest, happiest life possible.

These dogs are quite small with females standing at 9.5 inches tall, and weighing about 13 pounds Males stand about 10 inches tall, and weigh around 14 pounds. But don’t underestimate these small dogs —active and rugged, these little working pups are not nearly as fragile as they appear! Be ready for some serious activity from these tiny dogs.

Protective Ability

Courageous and independent, the Cairn Terrier is bred to be protective and watchful over his lands. Having been put to work to sniff out and scare off small furry creatures, and even animals as big as foxes and otters in larger groups, this dog will be protective over his family and property.

But given their small size, they can’t do much about intruders who make their way into the house. Know that this breed will be ever watchful and vigilant, but don’t expect them to be able to protect you too much. Instead get this breed for their intelligent, energetic, and loving nature.


The Cairn Terrier is a smart and outgoing dog. This intelligence means they are quick to learn, and by using positive reinforcements through treats and love, your dog will be well-mannered and friendly. They are attentive toward humans and, given proper stimulation through games and treats, are quite eager to learn.

If you are having problems with training, try to assess what might not be working for your dog. Consider making training sessions shorter, involving more treats or mentally exciting options like games, or simplifying your lessons to help these dogs learn.

These smart dogs can pick up just about anything, so if you run into issues be patient and try and figure out what you can change to simplify the lesson for your dog.

As very active and curious dogs, the biggest issues that can occur with Cairn Terriers are chasing and digging. Bred to root out small animals, the natural instinct for these dogs is to dig and chase. Patience, praise, and rewards while training will quickly teach your dog that listening to you is a lot more fun and that digging and chasing under the right conditions will lead to him having more rewards and a much better time!

Many Cairn Terriers do well at dog sports due to their athletic and intelligent nature.  Channeling your terrier’s instinct to hunt and dig into sports like Nosework or Barn Hunt can also really help mitigate those urges at home. Consider having your dog participate in these types of events to exercise both his mind and body.

Energy Level

Bred for working, this breed requires moderate daily exercise to keep him happy and healthy. Daily walks supplemented with plenty of playtime time will keep your Cairn Terrier calm and mentally stimulated.

However, the Cairn Terrier is quite adaptable. From big open farms, to high-rise apartments, this breed will do well in almost any type of home so long as they are provided with daily walks and playtime. If you live in a place with limited space, be sure you are walking your dog daily, as playtime in the living room or yard is not enough. These active dogs need walking to fulfill their primal instincts to move.

What Living with a Cairn Terrier is Like

The Cairn Terrier possesses many qualities that make him an excellent choice for most people. Active and hardy, they make a great companion for those that love to be outside, and their loving and loyal nature puts them up there as one of the best breeds for families. These dogs love spending time with kids and when properly socialized are generally friendly with other dogs and people. They are quite sturdy for a small breed, and adaptable to many situations.

While these dogs are affectionate and will snuggle, you are much more likely to find them, tail in air, sniffing out backyard vermin and playing with the kids. They love to be active and are quite adventurous. Expect new and entertaining moments around every corner.

Cairn Terriers are a pretty low-maintenance dog and can often keep themselves occupied. Just be sure to give them enough daily exercise and attention and your furry friend will be happy.

Care of the Cairn Terrier

The Cairn Terrier can live in almost any situations as long as they are provided enough exercise and family time.

Environmental Needs

These hardy little dogs can do well in hot and cold environments. Their thick wiry fur and soft downy undercoat keep them warm in the winter. If you live in an extreme environment be sure to keep an eye on your Cairn Terrier to make sure he is adapting to different climates well.

Exercise Needs

As a working breed, these busy dogs love to always be moving around and sniffing out any trouble. They will require daily walks and moderate exercise, whether from wrestling on the living room floor or running around in the backyard.

It is important to make sure they are getting all the daily activity they need to keep them mentally healthy and to avoid becoming overweight. Cairn Terriers are prone to obesity so if your dog is becoming overweight make sure they are not being overfed and are receiving enough daily exercise.

Cairn Terriers are natural chasers, and they are hard-pressed to not follow their instincts to chase small furry animals, including other pets like cats and hamsters. Using rewards to teach your dog about what not to chase will help keep him from going after the neighborhood cat, and walking on leash can keep him safe when he sees a squirrel running up a tree!

Shedding and Grooming

The Cairn Terrier doesn’t require too much grooming to be healthy. Their coarse fur should be brushed weekly to keep it the proper texture. Practice grooming when he’s a puppy for bonding time and to get him accustomed to this activity.

It is important to have the Cairn Terrier’s nails trimmed regularly as overly long nails can cause discomfort.

Ideal Home Environment

These dogs can do well in almost any home, as long as they are provided daily exercise and social interaction. Loving and curious they will want to bond with their family and love to play with you! Be sure you can provide this daily interaction.

While your Cairn Terrier is naturally protective and makes an alert watch dog, its small size won’t protect you from intruders, so you shouldn’t expect much in this department. That said, their friendliness, cleverness, and all-around happy nature makes them adaptable to most situations and you won’t be disappointed in the loyalty of your new family member.

Health Concerns

While typically quite healthy and hardy, these dogs can be susceptible to certain health problems that may shorten their lifespan or be costly to deal with.

The Cairn Terrier can suffer from globoid cell leukodystrophy, an enzyme deficiency that can cause nerve cell death. Genetic screening will let you know if your dog is a carrier for this problem.

Other issues can include cataracts, hip dysplasia, allergies, and Legg-Calvé-Perthes Disease (LCPD), a bone disorder that requires surgery. Be sure to go over health history with your breeder to know what problems your Cairn Terrier may be genetically predisposed to have, and consistently screen for health problems to catch and treat them early, when possible.

Behavior Problems

The Cairn Terrier loves to hunt and dig; without proper training he will not know the difference between your prize flower bed and a rodent hole prime for excavation. Being patient and using treats will help your dog know what is right and wrong and teach him that your rewards can be a lot more fun and tastier than digging and chasing where he shouldn’t!

Cairn Terriers can also suffer from separation anxiety, and do not do well when left alone for extended periods of time. Be sure to provide adequate social interaction everyday do that they don’t become destructive or anxious.

Some of these dogs may become shy if they are not properly socialized. Start early so that your Cairn Terrier can be open to new people, dogs, and experiences.