Cairn Terriers: the most honest dog breed review you'll ever find about Cairn Terrier temperament, personality, and behavior.

DOG BOOKS by Michele Welton

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Cairn Terrier dog breed

Cairn Terrier Temperament: What's Good About 'Em, What's Bad About 'Em

Cairn Terrier Temperament, Personality, Behavior, Traits, and Characteristics, by Michele Welton. Copyright © 2000-2017


When most people hear the word terrier, they picture Toto, the Cairn Terrier in The Wizard of Oz. And rightfully so, because this sturdy little dog breed is everything a terrier was designed to be – strong, hardy, plucky, and spirited. "He stands up on his toes", is an old saying about terriers.

The Cairn Terrier loves to play and needs his daily walks. But he is adaptable to any home in which he can be a full participant and busybody and where his bold terrier traits are kept under control by a confident owner.

Adult Cairn Terriers may be friendly or reserved with strangers, but are always alert and quick to announce guests.

This breed can be scrappy and bossy with other pets, but will co-exist with them more readily than some other terriers. However, strange animals may be a different story, as the Cairn Terrier was bred to hunt and will chase anything that moves.

He is inquisitive, so a leash or fenced yard is essential at all times.

Assertive but cheerful, with typical terrier stubbornness, the Cairn Terrier must be shown that you are in charge. But he does respond well to consistent discipline and lots of praise.

Cairn Terriers can be possessive of their food and toys. And being respectable terriers, they are enthusiastic diggers and barkers.


If you want a dog who...

  • Is small, yet sturdy and tough -- not a delicate lapdog
  • Has a natural appearance
  • Needs only moderate exercise
  • Makes a keen watchdog
  • Doesn't shed too much
  • Co-exists with other pets more willingly than some other terriers

A Cairn Terrier may be right for you.


If you don't want to deal with...

  • The dynamic terrier temperament (see full description below)
  • Potential aggression toward other animals -- strong chasing instincts
  • Stubbornness
  • Digging holes
  • Barking
  • Regular brushing and clipping
  • A considerable number of potential health problems

A Cairn Terrier may not be right for you.

Keep in mind that the inheritance of temperament is less predictable than the inheritance of physical traits such as size or shedding. Temperament and behavior are also shaped by raising and training.

  • You can avoid some negative traits by choosing an ADULT dog from an animal shelter or rescue group. With an adult dog, you can easily see what you're getting, and plenty of adult Cairn Terriers have already proven themselves not to have negative characteristics.
  • If you want a puppy, you can avoid some negative traits by choosing the right breeder and the right puppy. Unfortunately, you usually can't tell whether a puppy has inherited temperament or health problems until he grows up.
  • Finally, you can avoid some negative traits by training your Cairn Terrier to respect you and by following the 11-step care program in my book, 11 Things You Must Do Right To Keep Your Dog Healthy and Happy.

More traits and characteristics of the Cairn Terrier

If I was considering a Cairn Terrier, I would be most concerned about...

  1. The dynamic terrier temperament. Most terrier breeds are remarkably similar. The same words are used over and over – quick to bark, quick to chase, lively, bossy, feisty, scrappy, clever, independent, stubborn, persistent, impulsive, intense. But some terrier breeds are more so than others.

    Overall, as a breed, Cairn Terriers tend to be in the middle of the terrier spectrum. But of course there are some individual Cairns who will be in the higher end.

  2. Providing enough exercise and mental stimulation. I recommend that you get your Cairn Terrier involved in regular obedience classes at the intermediate or advanced level, or in ongoing agility classes (an obstacle course for dogs). Or join an earth dog club, where terriers are encouraged to dig and tunnel after small critters (which are secured in a sturdy cage so they can't be harmed).
  3. Potential animal aggression. Cairn Terriers are less scrappy than some other terrier breeds, but they are still a determined force to reckon with if they decide to initiate or accept a challenge to fight. Most terriers have strong instincts to chase and seize small fleeing creatures, but again Cairns are often less intense about this. For example, they're usually fine with your cat. But I wouldn't push my luck with a hamster!
  4. Yard security. Terriers need a fenced yard in which to stretch their legs, but many terriers are clever escape artists who will go over or under fences in search of adventure. You may need to sink wire into the ground along the fence line to thwart digging under.
  5. Running away from you. Like all dogs, Cairn Terriers must be taught to come when called. But I would only count on this breed obeying his training in an enclosed area. Terriers should not be trusted off-leash. The risk is too great that they will take off after anything that runs, oblivious to your frantic shouts.
  6. Potential barking. Terriers are often too quick to sound the alarm at every new sight and sound. You have to be equally quick to stop them.
  7. Mind of their own. Though more amenable to training than some other terriers, Cairn Terriers must be taught at an early age that they are not the rulers of the world. The toughness that makes them suited to killing vermin can frustrate you when you try to teach them anything. Terriers can be stubborn and dominant (they want to be the boss) and will make you prove that you can make them do things.

    To teach your Cairn Terrier to listen to you, I recommend "Respect Training." My Cairn Terrier Training Page discusses the program you need.

  8. Defensive reactions. If you need to physically chastise a terrier, and you go beyond what THEY believe is a fair correction, terriers (as a group) are more likely than other breeds to growl or snap. As an obedience instructor, I'm always extra careful when putting my hands on a terrier for a correction.

    I do not recommend terriers for homes with small children. Many terriers will not tolerate any nonsense from little life forms whom they consider to be below themselves in importance. Many terriers are quick to react to teasing, and even to the normal clumsiness that comes with small children (accidental squeezing of their ears or pulling of whiskers or stepping on their paw). Many terriers are possessive of their food and toys and will defend these from all comers, including children.

  9. Grooming. Cairn Terriers require clipping and trimming every few months. Breed purists may say that terrier coats should never be clipped because it makes the coat softer and more prone to matting. Instead they advocate hand-stripping (each dead hair pulled out so a new one can grow in its place). But in my opinion, stripping is too time-consuming and uncomfortable for the dog. Many groomers won't do it anymore. For pet dogs, I think clipping is just fine.
  10. Potential health problems. Cairn Terriers can suffer from joint problems, cataracts, epilepsy, skin problems, and more. Read more about Cairn Terrier Health.

To help you train and care for your dog

book cover To learn more about training your dog to be calm and well-behaved, my dog training book is Teach Your Dog 100 English Words. It's a unique Vocabulary and Respect Training Program that will teach your dog to listen to you and do whatever you ask.

book cover My dog buying guide, Dog Quest: Find The Dog Of Your Dreams, will teach you everything you need to know about finding a good-tempered, healthy dog.

book cover My dog health care book, 11 Things You Must Do Right To Keep Your Dog Healthy and Happy, shows you how to help your dog live a longer life while avoiding health problems and unnecessary veterinary expenses.

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