I like Cairn Terriers. When my brother called me to ask what kind of terrier he should get as a pet for himself and his three children, I recommended a Cairn. It was a good choice, and the dog and his family are ecstatically bonded.
That said, if someone asked me to recommend a working terrier, a Cairn would be far down the list.
The reason is not an obvious defect in the dog. A Cairn is a handsome and sturdy animal. Though some have over-large chests, many small bitches are well-built for work.
So what’s the problem? I am afraid it is at the other end of the leash!
Truth be told, the Cairn Terrier is a dog created in the show ring, and it has never rolled very far from that tree, and is almost never found in the field today.
The first Cairn Terrier appeared on the Kennel Club scene in 1909, when a Mrs, Campbell marched into a ring at Crufts with what she described as a “short-haired Skye Terrier.”
The taxonomic battle that ensued revolved around whether a “real” Skye Terrier was long-coated or not, and whether a short-haired dog was “defective” or not.
There is no reason to re-fight this linguistic mudsling. Suffice it to say that the battle was resolved in 1910 when a “new” (but allegedly old) breed was named a “Cairn Terrier” and given its own class at Crufts, and in the Kennel Club.
The battle between the two factions of Skye Terrier owners was not fought between men who owned shovels and digging bars and hunted fox and otter in the field. Like so many Kennel Club fights, this battle was between matrons and old men who claimed that someone (somewhere) had once owned a short- or long-coated version of the dog.
Some members of these factions claimed their father or grandfather had worked their version of the dog – and perhaps they did, though we have more evidence for the existence of the Yetti and the Lochness Monster (pictures!) than we do that this breed ever worked.
Whatever the truth about some antecedent of the Cairn Terrier and Skye terrier having seen true field work sometime in the distant past, it is a true fact that neither breed has seen much, if any, work since enlisted on the Kennel Club roles almost 100 years ago.
There is no question why this is so for the Skye Terrier – a dog with an over-long coat which seems better suited for mopping the floor than working its way through a hedgerow.
The Cairn Terrier, on the other hand, seems to have the basic physical requirements needed for work. Sure, some dogs are big in the chest, but some smaller dogs seem right sized. The coat is generally fine, if a little long for serious brush and mud.
So is there some other defect? Is there a weakness of noise or voice? Is there a timidity of character that becomes pronounced when the dog faces something larger than a rat?
Perhaps. In truth, however, the real problem is as likely to reside up the leash as down.
The most important requirement of a working terrier is not found in a Kennel Club conformation standard; it is having an owner that will take it out in the field and give it the opportunity to work. This, above all, appears to be the missing part of a Cairn Terrier.
In the world of the Cairn Terrier, there seems to be no shortage of people that will drive across three states in order to win a rosette, but few if any that will brave the winds of winter to find a fox. Own a locator collar? Treat a ripped muzzle? Dig down four feet through frozen soil and marl? Surely you are joking! A Cairn Terrier owner cannot imagine his or her little dog (much less themselves!) doing such work. Fantasy ends where a whipping wind and a sharp shovel begins.
The result of this missing part of the Cairn Terrier, is that today’s dogs must make do with the work they are given: scouring the kitchen floor for lost cookie dough, chasing squirrels in the back yard, catching a stray rat or possum by the wood shed (brave dog!) or perhaps attending an AKC go-to-ground trial.
Like so many Kennel Club breeds, this is one that "once was" or "used to be, if it ever was."
No matter. They are nice enough dogs and excellent pets. When people who have no interest in working their dog ask me to recommend a small dog for their family, a Cairn Terrier generally makes the list. I am glad to have a nice dog to recommend that is not a working breed.