About the Cairn Terrier
To quote the Official Standard, the Cairn Terrier is “an active, game, hardy, small working terrier of the short legged class”. This does sum up the breed well, but further details are helpful. The Cairn is rugged and tough…not much frightens him, and he is persistence personified. His rough coat offers protection from the elements, and requires little attention, beyond brushing and combing to keep him presentable. His undercoat, soft and furry, keeps him cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and does an amazing job of keeping him dry in the rain. One shake and his outer coat may be damp, but his skin will be dry. Cairns comes in a wide range of attractive, natural colors…nothing flashy, because a Cairn is not a flashy dog.
He is not short legged, despite the reference to “short legged class”, but he isn’t a long legged terrier, either. Like everything else about the Cairn, his legs are medium. His erect ears, placed well apart on his broad skull, give him an alert and intelligent look, and his compact, sinewy body is strong and sturdy. The Cairn is medium in length, with a well furnished tail carried erectly. His eye is difficult to describe, oval and dark, not black, and with an impish glint. A set of big teeth in strong jaws enables a Cairn to make short work of vermin, if he has the chance to hunt.
The Cairn is an independent dog, used to working on his own. He can be trained to obey and some excel in obedience and performance work, but he must be trained with respect and kindness…and it has to be fun and rewarding. The Breed Standard calls for Cairns to stand about 10 inches tall and weigh about 14 lbs. These days, many will exceed these measurements somewhat, but he should still be a small dog. He should never be “coarse” and his temperament should never be quarrelsome. Overall, the Cairn's disposition is sunny and fun loving, but he is seldom silly. He tends to be independent, not clingy, as befits a free thinking working dog. The Cairn is not a “lap dog” but a companion par excellence.
History of the Cairn Terrier
The origin of the Cairn Terrier is closely tied to the history of Scotland. Throughout the Isles and Highlands, small farms or “crofts” provided a meager living for countless families. The stones they gleaned from their property were gathered and piled in “cairns” to enable them to plant small crops to sustain their families through the bitter winters. These cairns provided a hiding place for the vermin that preyed upon the crofter’s crops and domestic animals. The small terriers that these crofters came to rely on to exterminate the rats were also useful for finding the foxes, badgers and otters that took refuge in the cairns. They would enter the rocky piles and bark to alert the farmer, who would shoot or club the rodents when they were flushed out of the dens. The terriers were game to the death, and persisted in spite of foul weather and freezing temperatures, helping the farmer to survive.
In return the dogs shared the meager rations of the croft…oatmeal and scraps of the food the farmers survived on. They required very little as they were small and economical to feed. Gradually the terriers developed subtle differences based on what each area required of them. The terriers of the Highlands and outer Islands were selected for their small size and hardiness, with little or no attention paid to their appearance, originally. Gradually the types began to differ in appearance as well, and thus emerged the Scottish Terrier, the West Highland White Terrier, the Skye Terrier, and finally the Cairn Terrier. The Cairn was the last to be named, but the closest to the original “Old Working Terrier of Skye”. He was first recognized by name in the United Kingdom in 1910, although in those days Cairns could be interbred with West Highland White Terriers, and the resulting progeny would be assigned the name that corresponded to their color! This practice ceased as of December 31st 1924 in the UK. Meanwhile, Cairn Terriers made their way to America, the first recorded imports being in 1913, where interbreeding was outlawed in 1917. The Cairn Terrier Club of America was formed that year.
The Cairn Terrier today remains the closest to the type of the original hardy terriers, having never fallen prey to fads and fancies. The stylized grooming and trends toward exaggerations in type have so far been largely resisted by Cairn breeders, in large part due to the Cairn Terrier Club of America having as one of its guiding precepts the preservation of the “Old Working Terrier of Skye”.