Dogs with the physical appearance of today’s Cairn Terriers have been recognized in the Highlands of Scotland and Isle of Skye for over 200 years. The earliest mention of what were likely the forerunners of today’s Cairn Terriers dates back to the 1625 when King James I sent prized specimens of ‘Earth Dogges’ to the King of France. These dogs were so valued that it was specified they be sent in multiple ships to avoid loss of all in the event of a ship being lost at sea.
Prior to 1873, all terriers in Scotland were called ‘Scottish Terriers’. In 1873, terriers were split into two distinct varieties – the Dandie Dinmont Terrier and the Skye Terrier. In the early days, what are now called Cairn Terriers and their predecessors went by a variety of other names such as Highland Terriers, Skye Otter Terriers, and Todhunters (fox hunters). These plucky little terriers were prized and bred specifically for their working instincts to control vermin rather than a distinct physical appearance and structure. In the early 1900s, Skye Terriers began to develop along several distinctly different physical lines, which soon differentiated into Cairn Terriers, West Highland White Terriers and Scottish Terriers.
Mrs. Alastair Campbell (nee Ida Monro) was an early breed fancier and did much to move the Cairn Terrier to breed status. She was the first to register dogs that later became Cairn terriers (1907) and to show her dogs (1909) under the designation Prick Eared or Short-haired Skye Terrier. This caused great controversy with the Skye Terrier Club (the current Skye Terrier is a long backed, long haired terrier). The dispute was ultimately resolved by designating breed status with the unique name of Cairn Terrier, approved in 1910. The first Cairn Terrier Club was organized and breed standards established a year later. The name ‘Cairn’ is derived from the rock piles (cairns) that are a familiar part of the landscape in northern Scotland and the Isle of Skye and in which Cairn Terriers often located their quarry.
Cairns are generally considered the original ‘short legged terrier’ and the foundation for both Scottish and West Highland White Terriers. Initially, breeding of white Cairn Terriers and interbreeding of Cairns and West Highland White Terriers was acceptable. Since 1925 there has been a strict separation between WHWT and Cairn Terriers. Registration and showing of Cairn Terriers grew quickly in popularity until World War I put a temporary halt to dog shows. Following the war, the popularity of Cairns grew, not only in Scotland and the UK, but also in North America. World War II again put pause to the world of dog shows and breeding, with a greatly reduced number of Cairns being awarded Championships in the late 40’s.
In the 1939 movie version of Wizard of Oz, ‘Terry’, a female Cairn Terrier played the role of Toto. Terry was owned and trained by Carl Spitz after she was abandoned by her original family. The original book by L. Frank Baum described Toto as ‘a little black dog with long silky hair and small black eyes that twinkled merrily on either side of his funny, wee nose’. Illustrations for the 1900 edition of the book show a dog that very much could be a Cairn Terrier. ‘Toto’ remains a beloved character even today and, to many, is the quintessential Cairn Terrier. Terry starred in more than 16 films. Cairn Terriers have played in at least 73 different movies and films over the years. For a compilation of movies with Cairn Terrier actors go to cairnterriermovies.com.
Over the last three decades, the popularity of pure breed dogs in general has diminished. The popularity of designer breeds, the vigorous marketing efforts of rescue organizations and the wholesale importation of dogs to supply a retail rescue market, as well as restrictive anti-breeding & dog ownership legislations in some jurisdictions have all had impacts on the breeding of pure breed dogs. In concert with declining numbers in many breeds, the number of Cairn terriers being exhibited at dog shows has declined, as have number of Cairn Terrier litter registrations and puppy registrations. As a breed, Cairn Terriers are at risk of disappearing altogether if action is not taken. In 2019, the Cairn Terrier Club of Canada introduced the Certificate of Breeding Quality Program as one strategy to help sustain and promote the breeding of quality Cairn Terriers. The club is also active in public education events such as Pet Expos to promote our breed and educate the public about the benefits and joys of selecting a well bred dog, and especially, of living with our delightful breed.
While today, most Cairn Terriers are no longer fulfilling their historic purpose, they remain independent, tenacious little dogs that love to hunt and dig. In recent years the variety and availability of dog sports has increased exponentially. There is truly something for every dog and handler. The sports of Earthdog and Barn Hunt in particular appeal to Cairn Terriers as they allow them to participate in activities that resemble those of their ancient forebearers and tap into those instincts to hunt. Both sports require dogs to locate quarry (rats or gerbils) safely ensconced in quarry cages or rat tubes, and let the handler know the location of the quarry. Many Cairns also participate in a variety of other sports far removed from their original purpose. Their drive, tenacity and love of working with their handler helps them be successful, while their independence and creative problem solving skills often leads to some rather unusual, funny and unsanctioned Cairn-style approaches to any sport.
Cairns have long been described as “the best little pal in the world” – a designation first applied by The Cairn Terrier Club (UK, founded 1910), and one which has stood the test of time.