Cairn Terriers are hardy, working dogs, bred to bolt quarry such as otter, fox and other small vermin. Cairns were selectively bred to be tough, courageous and independent. Rather than waiting on a handler to direct their activities they will initiate the hunt instictively. They are energetic, alert, busy and playful. Well-bred Cairn Terriers are confident and outgoing with people and good with children, happily engaging in a wide range of activities with their families. With other dogs, they may have a noisy play style that includes growling and rumbles, despite their playful intent. This can lead to conflict with other dogs not used to such a play style. Some Cairns can be feisty with other dogs, particularly if they feel threatened.


11-12 inches high at the withers (shoulders)

14-16 pounds

These criteria are ‘ideal’ characteristics and are derived from the ‘Country of Origin’ Breed standard (UK). The US standard calls for a slightly smaller dog. Regardless of the size, a cairn must be well proportioned and sturdy.


The Cairn terrier should immediately impress as a sturdy, strong and well-balanced dog – they should look neither delicate nor ponderous. The expression has been described as ‘foxy’ with bright, alert eyes, shining with intelligence. They should move easily, with a smooth gait and level top line. The ears are naturally pricked (upright). The fur on the upper ½-2/3 of the ear is usually kept short to maintain a perky, alert expression that is characteristic of the breed. The tail is natural (undocked) and stands straight up, looking like an inverted carrot at the end of the spine. The coat is double with harsh, longer outer hair and a soft undercoat. The double coat, if maintained by stripping rather than clipping, provides excellent dirt and water repellency as well as insulation in cold, damp weather. Rolling the coat by regular stripping will help keep a tight, harsh coat that looks tidy; left on its own, the coat will become shaggy – a look that some owners prefer.

Cairns come in many different colour variations with the exception of white, which has been disallowed since the separation of Cairns from West Highland White Terriers. Many puppies will have a small white blaze on their chest but this typically darkens with age. Cairns may be clear (solid colour) such as red, wheaten, cream and grey, or brindle. Brindle is often described as ‘tiger-stripes’ and means that there are sections of coat that have different colour (darker) bands on a base colour. In Cairns, this banding is not obvious unless the outer layer is shaved down, but rather appears as flecking of darker and lighter hairs within the coat. Cairns are one of the few breeds that have colour bands in individual hairs – if you look at a brindle cairn, you will find that each hair has several bands of different colour, rather than geographic patches of different colour throughout the coat. It is also important to note that it is difficult to predict the adult coat colour of a Cairn puppy as coat colour changes throughout life. Most brindle Cairns will become darker with age – even bordering on black. Some wheatens and reds also darken while others remain the original colour. Since colour frequently changes, it is important to resist the temptation to pick a puppy based on colour. There are far more important considerations than colour.

The Breed Standard defines the structure of the Cairn, with criteria for each part of the body. You can find the Breed Standard here:  https://www.ckc.ca/CanadianKennelClub/media/Breed-Standards/Group%204/Cairn-Terrier.pdf

Purpose Bred

Many of the features of our Cairn Terriers arise from their original vermin hunting roles.

  • They must be small and agile enough to go into dens underground as well into crevices between rocks after their prey.
  • Their front feet are well padded and larger than their back feet and may be slightly turned out – these feet are made for digging! The slight turn out allows them to push the dirt behind them when digging in tight spaces like a rodent den.
  • Their double coat with harsh outer and soft inner coats helps protect them from wet, cold weather.
  • Their powerful muzzle and scissor bite (upper teeth closely overlap the lower) allows them to get a firm grasp on roots (when digging) or prey (although their primary role was to bolt quarry rather than to kill it).
  • Their very strong, well set, upright tail acts like a flag to help localize the dog when all else is below ground or between rocks, and while we don’t recommend pulling on tails, they have been used from time to time to help extricate a stuck dog.
  • Their loud barks (especially when on quarry) were desirable to help the handler keep track of their location.
  • Their strong instinct to give chase, and their prey drive were vital to their success as vermin exterminators.


Other Cairn Terrier Clubs

United States of America: http://cairnterrier.org/

United Kingdom: https://www.thecairnterrierclub.co.uk/

Cairn Terrier