What is a cairn? A cairn is an artificially made conical pile of stones that can be found in uplands, or moorlands, or mountaintops. A cairn used to serve as astronomical markers, landmarks, and sepulchral monuments. In the Scottish Highlands, cairns are common. Cairn Terriers were named after these piles of stones, or rather, for their ability to dig into the burrows of vermin hiding within the cairns.
In the ancient Isle of Skye and in the Scottish Highlands, a breed of terrier was bred some 200 years ago, to help rout out small game and vermin from cairns found on farmlands. These early terriers had to be small enough to fit through the tiny burrows of its prey, while at the same time, had the tenacity to bring down its quarry. The breed was developed further so that its tiny body was sturdy enough to work all day, and still maintain enough energy to be vigilant as a watchdog at night. Its coat was developed for weather-proofing to withstand the harsh and ever changing climates of the Highlands.
Tenacious little dogs with sturdy jaws were highly prized among the upland farmers. Not only did they help in the eradication of vermin from the land, they also brought home small game like rabbits and hares. These tiny terrors also chased away or drove out from their burrows potential animal threats like foxes, otters and weasels.
The ancestors of the Cairn Terriers were bred for their working ability, and not really for their appearances or conformations. Cairn Terriers are in fact, the closest known conformation to the original working terriers of the Scottish Highlands. It is also the smallest of all terrier breeds. Offshoots of these working terriers created the Scottish Terrier and the West Highland White Terrier.
In 1912, the Kennel Club of Great Britain officially recognized the Cairn Terriers as a separate breed from the other terriers. One year later, the American Kennel Club also followed suit.
Today, Cairn Terriers have to follow a specific breed conformation which was approved on May 10, 1938. The basic desirable conformation dictates that the male dogs should weigh at least 14 pounds and should be 10 inches at the withers. Female dogs should weigh at least 13 pounds and should be 9 and a half inches at the withers. However, Cairn Terriers (should) generally stand between 9 to 13 inches at the withers and may weigh 13 to 18 pounds. The most extreme reports of Cairn Terriers standards were terriers that weighed only 7 pounds or those that weighed over 27 pounds.
Cairn Terriers today are no longer used as hunting dogs, although the breed still retains its hunting and stalking abilities. It is still an avid digger, a trait that was desirable when its prey was locked deep into its burrows. Most of the time, Cairn Terriers are employed as home companions, farm pets or traveling buddies. They remain energetic and frisky, inquisitive and fearless. They are also very affectionate towards their human care takers.