Cairn Terrier

AKC Terrier Group


Photo copyright © Cook PhoDOGraphy. All rights reserved.

Photo copyright © Cook PhoDOGraphy. All rights reserved.

Named for the piles of small stones used to mark Scottish farm borders and graves, the Cairn Terrier’s job was to rout small animals from their lairs in these stone piles. Though used for such purposes for centuries, the Cairn Terrier is now primarily a companion dog. He also excels at earthdog (Go-to-Ground) trials. Everyone remembers a Cairn called Toto in the film The Wizard of Oz. The Cairn is one of Scotland’s original terriers, probably a contributor to today’s Scottish, West Highland White, and Skye Terrier breeds.


The Cairn Terrier is a peppy, very hardy little terrier with an abundant shaggy outer coat and a soft, downy undercoat. The coat comes in red, brindle, blackish, sand, and various shades of gray. Any color except white is acceptable, though dark points (ears, eyes, and muzzle) are preferred. Adult coat color is hard to predict from the puppy coat, as the color often continues to change for several years. The Cairn Terrier has a compact body, about 14-1/2 to 15 in. from forechest to back of hindquarters. The head is broad, with bushy topknot and eyebrows and a black nose. The ears are small, pointy, and naturally erect. The short, hairy tail is carried gaily. Faults to avoid: missing teeth, pinkish nose, white on the chest or feet, soft or curly body coat.

Key Facts

  • Height: Averages 10 in. (male); 9-1/2 in. (female)
  • Weight: Averages 14 lbs. (male); 13 lbs. (female)
  • Availability: May take some effort to find
  • Talents: Hunting, earthdog, tracking, watchdog, agility, competitive obedience, and performing tricks


Good for apartment living. Coat needs brushing weekly and bathing monthly. Trimming and stripping the coat twice a year will keep the dog looking his best. Likes to dig in backyards, searching for vermin. Do not leave unsupervised in a landscaped yard! Can be a chaser; don’t let off lead in an unsecured area. One vigorous walk per day will provide enough exercise for the Cairn. Do not overfeed as this breed tends to gain weight easily. Limit treats, even though the dog may be almost irresistible when begging! Cairns tend to be allergic to fleas.


Spirited, hardy, restless little busybody. A big dog in a small dog’s body. Alert, loyal, merry, lovable, and mischievous. Somewhat independent, but friendly. Females tend to be more independent than males, and some breeders feel the males are more affectionate. Very curious, fearless, and bold. Likes to do tricks. Easily trainable. Naturally patient with children and very playful. Sensitive, needs firm, but not harsh, training and discipline. Without attention and training, the Cairn can become destructive and/or bark excessively. Adapts well to new homes.


  • Children: Best with older, considerate children
  • Friendliness: Fairly friendly with strangers
  • Trainability: Easy to train
  • Independence: Fairly independent
  • Dominance: Moderate
  • Other Pets: Generally good with other pets
  • Combativeness: Can be a bit dog-aggressive
  • Noise: Average barker
  • Indoors: Very active indoors
  • Owner: Good for novice owners


  • Grooming: A little grooming needed
  • Trimming and Stripping: Moderate trimming or stripping needed
  • Coat: Medium long coat
  • Shedding: Very light
  • Exercise: Moderate exercise needed
  • Jogging: Small, but a pretty good jogging companion
  • Apartments: Will be OK in an apartment if sufficiently exercised
  • Outdoor Space: Does all right without a yard
  • Climate: Does well in most climates
  • Longevity: Moderately long lived (12 to 15 years)

Useful Links

AKC® Cairn Terrier Breed Standard

Cairn Terrier Breed Club

Search for a Breeder

Rescue Organizations

Books about the Cairn Terrier

Cairn Terrier Gifts