Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Missing Part of a Cairn Terrier




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.

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6 comments:

Cathy Smith said...

Loved your comment about the problem being on the other end of the leash! :) It usually is...isn't it?
Have to tell you, my ancestors are from Ireland and Scotland, and my grandmother assured me that Westies and cairns were working dogs back in the day, and that they owned both breeds when they were young. She said that they were a bit more muscular, but looked much the same. After having owned larger dogs (Australian shepherd/blue heeler, retriever), we got our first Westie and have been "goners" for terriers ever since. Our Westie was nearly 13 when he died--but happy to the end (in spite of being nearly deaf and blind...I was his "hearing/seeing-eye person"). We now have a little cairn who would LOVE to work, if we'd just find something for her to do! If we don't exercise her enough, she runs laps, outside and in the house, back and forth, touching base with her toy in her mouth...then she settles in for the night. You've given me much to think about...maybe it's time to let the cairns work again, as Gram said they did in the Highlands...my husband and I just got back from Ireland and the first three dogs we saw were Westies (guess it isn't a stereotype! :)...and only one cairn (and he was on his way to the pub, clipping along with his little chest pushed out)! Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

Charles said...

I have owned three Cairns for the last 12 years and I have to agree with the comments. All were/are females and they were all wonderful dogs but only one, my current bitch, has shown any sign of wanting to "work" in the sense of actually hunting vermin. She still does not have that killer instinct that a good game dog has. I have seen her chase innumerable squirrels but she seems to hesitate just long enough to prevent a catch of the prey. She is obviously playing with these critters.
I have seen her dig up voles but fail to finish them off.
Great dogs in every respect and perhaps possible working dogs but my experience is consistent with the commentator.

Anonymous said...

I was fortunate enough to have a Cairn a few years ago. She was not in any sense of the word a house pet although she did spend quite a bit of time inside - especially during bad weather. She killed at least a dozen groundhogs in her lifetime, numerous snakes and young rabbits. She proved that the Cairn can still be a typical terrier and "go to ground."

Anonymous said...

I have owned two Cairns in the past and currently own a female Cairn. I am simply in love with this breed; they are so much fun. While I have never actively participated in earth dog competitions or showmanship of any type with my Cairns, I have observed them to have very keen instincts when outdoors which led me to believe they would indeed be excellent field dogs. My current Cairn just last spring killed two young rabbits in my fenced in back yard, even eating half of one before I intervened. She certainly did not want to relinquish her prize. Crickets are her current favorite prey!

Sean Cadden said...

I have owned two Cairns, and they're now both about 14. When younger, they were hearty hunters, and killed over 90 rats in suburban Southern California. They also killed rabbits, squirrels, insects, birds and anything else that challenged them. They fought but did not kill skunks, raccoons and possums. True they're not as driven as other terriers I've seen, but the kills added up over time. That said, I tell others they're better companions than working terriers.

Dance In Light said...

We grief stricken that our Cairn broke off his leash in pursuit of deer into a densely wooded and bramble area. It's now been 4 days and no sign of him. When the leash broke, he took one look at me, looked at the deer and ran for the hunt. For 3 hours we called for him but it was dark by that point. I wish he had less of the hunter instinct in him. We tried to train him to come but he only came when he wanted.