Years ago I had the good fortune to pet sit for a friend who had several dogs, one of whom was a Cairn terrier. Duffy was an older dog when I met her, but still an adorable, feisty wee thing, sure of herself and the epitome of a scruffy little terrier. She was the smallest dog of the three dogs my friend had and she completely charmed me, an avowed “big dog” person.
I’ve loved the breed ever since and often say a Cairn will be my dog for my Golden Girls years when I get too old or infirm to handle a powerful large breed. And I may get one sooner than that! Here are eight facts about cairn terriers that breed fans know by heart.
A famous movie star dog
Cairn terrier fans know that Toto, from the iconic movie The Wizard of Oz, was pretty much the quintessential Cairn: feisty and bold, smart and determined (as only a terrier can be!). Who can forget Toto trotting jauntily along with Dorothy and her three companions along the yellow brick road, or pulling back the curtain for the big reveal of the sham “Wizard”?
Toto was a girl!
In real life Toto was a ‘she’ and her name was Terry. Furthermore, the best known Cairn terrier of all time was essentially a rescue dog. Her original owners, unable to housebreak their stubborn puppy, brought her to a trainer, Carl Spitz, and basically abandoned her there.
Mr. Spitz trained Terry and this secondhand dog went on to become a dog who went down in history, complete with her own memorial at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (her name was eventually changed to Toto, in honor of her famous role).
Cairns bark with a burr (another Scottish breed)
Cairn terriers, like several of the well-known terrier breeds, originated in Scotland. Once part of the collective known as “Scotch terriers,” it wasn’t until the 1800s that fanciers began to refine the various types into distinctive breeds.
This brought us such notable breeds as the West Highland White terrier, the Skye terrier (Cairns are sometimes referred to as short-haired Skye terriers in historical accounts of the breed), and of course the Scottish terrier.
Named for the rock piles where they hunted
An old Scottish word, a cairn is a mound of stones piled up either as a memorial, to mark property lines, or as a trail/path marker. On Highland game preserves, rodents were known to live beneath these rock cairns. Small and plucky, Cairn terriers were fearless in their digging around the cairns to get at the rodents under them.
Cairn terriers were a breed found in the western Highlands of Scotland as early as the 1600s, but the name Cairn terrier wasn’t official until the late 1800s.
Wee but mighty
Tenacious is a word that seems like it could have been coined specifically for the terrier temperament. Although one of the smaller of the 30-plus AKC-recognized terrier breeds, Cairns are no exception to that description of unwavering determination.
They’re small enough to fit comfortably on your lap (although they aren’t inclined to spend much time there), and game and sturdy enough to continue their traditional work of hunting rodent pests—including squirrels in your yard!
Energetic and easygoing
Cairns are considered right in the middle range for terrier activity: less intense and not as scrappy as some of the other terrier breeds, but still possessed of strong instincts to chase and attack small fleeing creatures. Your cats are probably safe, but pet hamsters or gerbils will be at risk. Keeping them on a leash when out walking is safest for them and the neighborhood squirrels alike.
Digging comes with the territory
It is, after all, part of their name. According to Merriam Webster, “Terrier is derived from the Middle English terryer, terrer, from Anglo-French (chen) terrer, literally, earth dog, from terre earth, from Latin terra.”
If you have moles, your Cairn will take care of them. But after he’s done, you might wish you just had moles.
Small but not little
Cairns are about 11-12 inches tall and weigh from 14-16 pounds. They have front paws that are larger than their rear paws, an advantage when digging in the pursuit of rodents. They’re also known to have large teeth for a dog of their size. Mostly, though, they have a big personality and the terrier confidence that endears them to their people.
Or, as one British breed club puts describes the Cairn terrier: they’re “the best little pal in the world.”