Describing a Cairn Terrier to someone unfamiliar with the breed is easy. Just say, “Dorothy’s dog, Toto, in the movie, The Wizard of Oz.” Played by a female named Terry, “Toto” was the iconic Cairn Terrier in both appearance and spirit.
Modern Cairn Terriers resemble the original working terriers developed on the Isle of Skye and other locations along the western coast of Scotland and in the Highlands. Two hundred years ago, farmers needed tough independent vermin hunters to keep rats and mice out of their grain and vegetable stores. These small scrappy dogs were also capable of going after more valuable quarry such as fox and otter.
Their most desirable characteristics were their courage, independence, toughness and easy maintenance. Cairns today still have the tousled, weather-resistant coats, large teeth and strong forelegs (for digging) for which their ancestors were prized.
Though they look low-maintenance and don’t have all the demanding grooming requirements of many other terrier breeds, their coats need frequent combing. They have a soft undercoat that may become matted if not kept free of tangles, and the shed hair needs to be stripped out on a regular basis. Their love of digging demands regular bathing as well.
If you’re thinking about adding a Cairn Terrier to your family, remember that it will want to be a full-time member, living in the house or apartment with you and being included in your activities. A Cairn left on its own too much will become bored and may destroy things in the house, become a nuisance barker or dig up the yard if left outside.
With consistent and patient training, however, a Cairn can learn almost anything. They excel in obedience and agility training, and they can provide great motivation for an owner who wants to get more exercise.
This is a great breed for households with children. They have a high tolerance for the occasional stepped-on foot, and they love to play with kids. As with any dog, young children should be supervised while playing with a Cairn, and they should not be allowed to mistreat it.
As a general rule, Cairn Terriers are a healthy breed, but like all dogs they are prone to some genetic disorders. Progressive Retinal Atrophy is a type of partial to complete blindness found in almost all breeds. It can be detected in early stages, so responsible breeders have their dogs tested and certified and only breed the ones with no sign of PRA.
Cairns can also inherit and pass on a knee condition found in many small breeds in which the kneecap slips out of its normal position. The condition ranges from mild to severe and can cause even a tough little Cairn a lot of pain. If the dog does a lot of jumping onto furniture, it will only make things worse.
A dedicated group of Cairn owners and breeders have collected much information on the genetic disorders of their favorite breed. They hope to find ways to eliminate as many as possible. After all, as long as there is a land of Oz, there needs to be a Toto.