AmCanGCh Quarrydene's Queen of Diamonds, performing an interior search (Sporting Scent Detection)

Cairn Terrier Training & Behaviour Issues

General behaviours

The general behaviour (as well as behaviour issues we find undesirable) of our Cairn Terriers often harks back to their historical roles as independent working dogs. However, as with all breeds, there will be variations in behaviour from dog to dog. Some Cairns are quite self-contained and content on their own for long periods – sometimes tucked away in a quiet corner. Others are more gregarious and want to be in close proximity to their people as much as possible. Regardless of whether your Cairn is a solitary or gregarious soul, they are always ready to work, train, play or eat! And even the most solitary Cairn is typically keen to welcome and engage with visitors – even if they shortly take themselves off to be in their quiet place.

Cairn puppies may be deceptively quiet but Cairns do have an impressive array of vocalizations and they are definitely not afraid to let their voices be heard. Growly vocalizations are common during play and while they often sound ferocious, are usually all in fun. Some Cairn owners talk about the ‘death scream’ - a high-pitched screech produced when a Cairn is excited (and usually unable to get to whatever has triggered their interest). Alert barking is common in Cairns as this was one of the key ways they had to get the attention of their owner when working.

Cairn Terriers are highly observant. As vermin hunters, they needed to be aware of every little sound, every little movement and able to respond quickly. They notice each tiny change in their environment - from a plastic bag caught on the fence here, to a bird sitting on a branch, to a leaf blowing there. Cairns often watch the world far away from them and notice things at great distances – and often feel the need to tell you about it. Their vermin hunting heritage also makes them highly prone to give chase, and while in chase mode they are single minded in their purpose to chase. Off leash activities are risky unless done in well confined areas.

Polite leash walking is a challenge for many Cairn Terriers. Their independent spirit, intense interest in all that goes on around them and ability to see at distance all make it challenging for them to grasp the concept of walking calmly by your side when there is so much exciting stuff happening around them. With consistency, patience and positive reinforcement, polite leash walking IS an attainable goal.

Most Cairn Terriers are highly food motivated. This is a great asset for training using positive reinforcement.

Undesirable Behaviours


Digging is a hardwired behaviour for Cairn Terriers. They needed to be effective and motivated diggers to perform their historical purpose. Recreational digging is frustrating for some Cairn owners but brings great pleasure to our dogs. There are two approaches you can take to digging:

Teach your dog never to dig – this is a challenging approach unless you are with your dog 100% of the time when outdoors. If your dog is always supervised outdoors, you can use a positive interrupter to help stop digging. If your dog is not supervised at all times when outside, it is likely he will take the opportunity to dig when you are not around. Punishing your dog for digging when you find those holes later is not effective as the reinforcement for digging has already happened and your dog will not associate the punishment with something that happened previously.

Provide a sanctioned digging place and protect areas where you do not wish digging to occur. This is a better option as it allows your dog the pleasure of engaging in hardwired behaviour. When introducing your dog to their ‘sandbox’, you can ‘salt’ it with favoured toys or treats for him to discover. Praise your dog for digging in that area. If there areas where you strictly do not want digging to occur, it is important to have effective barriers. Some dogs will enjoy digging so much that the digging begins to spill over into other areas. If you catch your dog digging outside the designated area, you can use the positive interrupter and encourage your dog to move over to the digging zone.

Boredom will increase the likelihood of digging, although not all digging is due to boredom – often it is simply that digging is so much fun. Using enrichment strategies can help minimize digging as it provides alternative activities for your dog.

Rodent control – if you have gophers, voles and other small rodents in your yard, your dog will find digging even more highly reinforcing. Do what you can to rid your yard of rodents – but be aware that rodenticides are toxic to dogs.


Chewing is a normal stage of puppyhood, but can also be due to boredom or stress relief.

Puppy Chewing: During teething, many puppies need to chew to soothe sore gums. It is important to carefully supervise puppies at this stage as they may chew on undesirable or unsafe items. Provide sanctioned and safe chew articles and encourage the puppy to chew on those. A rag soaked in unsalted broth, twisted and frozen makes a soothing chew. There are also a variety of chew toys, some of which can be frozen, designed for teething puppies.

Recreational Chewing: Dogs may chew when they are stressed or bored. Providing enrichment activities and appropriate chew items can help reduce undesirable chewing. Good management (keeping items that are inappropriate for chewing out of reach) is important for your dog’s safety and the integrity of your possessions. Using an Xpen, crate or ‘dog safe zone’ in your house when you cannot be there to supervise is very helpful – but be sure to teach your dog that crates and Xpens are nice places to be before you throw him in one and leave the house. (see information on crate training)


Cairn terriers love surprising their owners! Jolene way, way up the pine tree, on the hunt for squirrels.

Barking was a key skill for hunting Cairn Terriers as their primary role was not to dispatch rodents but to ‘bolt’ them and get the handler’s attention. Because of this, Cairn Terriers typically bark for a reason (alert barking), rather than simply to vocalize. Alert barking is intended as communication. It may be a vehicle on the street, a bird flying past, a plastic bag blowing by or someone coming up the walk – they feel the need to tell you all about it! The good thing is that alert barking can usually be addressed by acknowledging it and if necessary, briefly engaging your dog in a few quick reinforceable behaviours. Here is a link to a detailed strategy for dealing with alert barking:

Resource guarding

Resource guarding is a common problem for many breeds. Cairns are not more prone to resource than average but it can be an issue for some, especially if the breeder did not introduce resource guarding protocols during the first 12 weeks . Resource guarding can pertain to food, toys, people or places. Resource guarding is best addressed through prevention rather than waiting until it is established. You should start resource guarding exericses as soon as your puppy comes home.

Body Language

Recognizing body language is a key skill that all dog owners should seek to acquire. Body language allows us to infer information about our dog’s emotional state and be proactive in addressing stressful situations before they escalate as well as knowing when it is safe to engage with people, other dogs or experiences. While body language is a topic of lengthy books, here are a few concise resources.

One thing to keep in mind is that Cairn Terriers, with their upright tail carriage, do not ‘follow the rules’ with respect to tail carriage – in other breeds high tail carriage is said to indicate assertiveness and may be an indicator of impending aggression. In Cairn Terriers, the tail is typically upright when they are happy, confident and engaged. Dropping the tail below the normal carriage point may indicate stress or anxiety. Pulling the tail forward over the back can indicate that the dog is intensely interested and excited. A forward pointing tail (rigid or with low amplitude fast wags) can also be an indicator of assertiveness and can be a prelude to a snark.


Dominance theory has become a very popular concept in dog training and has given rise to some unfortunate and harmful training methods. Dominance theory was based on flawed understanding of normal wolf behaviour derived from observations of captive wolf behaviour. Wolves in nature behave quite differently than captive wolves. In contrast to strict hierarchical structures, wolves in nature live in much more cooperative social structures with deference being a matter of choice rather than imposition. It is inappropriate to derive guidance on dog training methods from this flawed understanding of wolf behaviour. Dominance training methods typically impose strict structures on the relationship between dog and handler (e.g. the handler must eat before the dog, the handler must always exit a door before the dog and many others) as well as focusing on corrections as the main training methodology. Dogs behave as they do because something in the behaviour is working to meet a need – not because they are stubborn, or disrespecting and trying to dominate the handler. A helpful resource in this area is Kathy Sdao’s little book ’Plenty in Life is Free’ published by Dogwise.


Training Your Cairn Terrier

Training Methods – Be Positive!

There are many different training methodologies – with a bewildering variety of names: Clicker Training, Positive Reinforcement Based Training, Balanced Training, Relationship Centered Training, Dominance Based Training, Alpha Dog, Motivational Training and on it goes. Different training methods may use a variety of tools – from toys, treats and praise, to clickers, electronic collars, prong collars etc. So with this plethora of options available to you, how do you find a safe, effective method that will work for you and your dog?

Many training methods depend on use of corrections and corrective devices to punish the dog for incorrect choices. We now know from scientific studies that use of corrections and aversive methods increase stress related behaviours in dogs and these behaviours persist beyond the training session and even after the behaviour is fully trained and aversions are no longer being used. Use of corrections / aversives (even if used in combination with reward based techniques) was also associated with increased aggression. In contrast, use of positive reinforcement based techniques without corrections results in more robust learning and better behaviour without the undesirable fall out that comes from aversion based techniques.

Whatever a training method is called it is important to determine that it relies on positive reinforcement  – ie: rewarding correct behavioural choices in training and does not mix reinforcements with corrections. Many proponents of correction based training claim that positive reinforcement cannot be used to train certain behaviours, or cannot be used to address undesirable behaviours but this is incorrect. These days almost all zoo and marine animals are trained exclusively using positive reinforcement – and this includes training large, dangerous animals to accept invasive procedures calmly and voluntarily – and without all the negative fall out that comes from aversive measures.

Our Find a Trainer section list trainers committed to positive reinforcement based training.