Cairn Terrier: A Toto-ly Awesome Dog Breed

Young Cairn Terrier dog standing in the snow

A lot of people don’t know what a Cairn Terrier is, but mention the name Toto, and a picture of the breed forms in their mind immediately. The little terrier who went over the rainbow is a movie legend and indisputably one of the most famous dogs of all time. That’s why so many people, even if they don’t necessarily know the breed name, want a cute and spunky little Toto of their very own.

But how accurate is The Wizard of Oz in its portrayal of Cairns? If you’ll recall, Toto is a bit of a troublemaker, running afoul of Miss Gulch early in the movie.

Sounds about right.

On the other hand, the dog stays on the Yellow Brick Road without a leash. And as any Cairn owner knows, you can never trust one of these dogs off a leash. Cairn Terriers were bred to hunt, and have a powerful instinct to chase, dig, and explore.

Cairn Terriers at a Glance

Size13-20 pounds
Life Expectancy12-15 years
Overall HealthGood
Grooming RequirementsLow – Medium, depending on style
Exercise RequirementsMedium
Barking TendencyHigh
Digging TendencyHigh
Good With Children?Varies
Good With Other Dogs?Varies
Prey Drive/Tendency to ChaseHigh
Overall Terrier-tudeToto-ly Awesome


The Cairn Terrier personality is curious, active, passionate, independent, confident, and very intelligent. Like other terrier breeds, they can be difficult to train simply because they have their own priorities.

They seem to have a built-in affinity for children, and when socialized early on, are gregarious with people in general. They like to be where the action is, and fit in well in larger families. Rather than favoring one person, they seem happy to be everyone’s dog.

Cairn Terrier looking sweetly up at the camera
Cairn Terriers love people and like to be right in the middle of everything.

On the other hand, because of their assertiveness, Cairns don’t always get along with other dogs. Exposure to other dogs at a young age can help a lot, but there always seems to be the potential for a scrap when a Cairn Terrier is around an unfamiliar dog.

Health Problems & Life Expectancy

The life expectancy of a Cairn Terrier is generally 12-15 years. These dogs are healthy compared to many breeds, and don’t have a laundry list of serious health problems to worry about.

Three adorable Cairn Terrier puppies.
Cairns are sturdy, long-lived dogs that don’t come with a long list of genetic problems.

That said, some things to be concerned about include allergies, general skin problems, and cataracts. These dogs are also quite prone to obesity, which is probably the most common and potentially severe heath problem of all.

Another issue is that a Cairn – despite its sturdiness – can easily get hurt due to its aggressive nature. These guys won’t hesitate to take on a much larger dog. They also tend to be escape artists, and will take advantage of their freedom to wander far from home, hunt animals, and/or chase cars. In short, they need to be watched closely.

Cairn Terrier Mixes

With the trend toward designer dogs, Cairns are sometimes mixed with other breeds to form new and interesting hybrids. Here’s a list of the most popular Cairn mixes, along with the corresponding designer dog breed names.

Breed Mixed With Cairn TerrierResulting Designer Dog Breed
Australian ShepherdCairn Australian Shepterrier
Bichon FriseKashon
Boston TerrierCairoston
Brussels GriffonGrifficairn
Cavalier King CharlesKing Cavrin
Cocker SpanielCairicocker
DachshundDoxie Cairn
Jack Russell TerrierJacairn
Miniature PinscherMini Cairn Pin
Miniature SchnauzerCarnauzer
Shiba InuShairn Inu
Shih TzuCare Tzu
Silky TerrierSilky Cairn
Welsh CorgiCairn Corgi
West Highland White TerrierCairland Terrier
Yorkshire TerrierCarkie

5 Terribly Interesting Facts About Cairn Terriers

The Cairn is believed to be one of the oldest terrier breeds. For many, they epitomize terrier-ness in their small stature, keen intelligence and spunky nature. Here are some facts about the breed that every Cairn Terrier owner should know.


The word cairn refers to the rock piles in Scotland where these terriers hunted vermin. Not only were they excellent rat killers, but they hunted other animals that were considered pests, such as foxes and otters. The dogs had to be fierce and determined for this line of work.


Cairns belong to a class of terriers from Scotland that also includes the Dandie Dinmont Terrier, the Scottish Terrier, the Skye Terrier, and the West Highland White Terrier. Until the late 1800s, no one much cared to distinguish between these breeds, and Cairns were often lumped in with Skye Terriers. The AKC recognized the Cairn as a distinct breed at the relatively late date of 1913.

Illustration of a dog identified as a Skye Terrier in a 1907 book on dogs
Illustration of a dog identified as a Skye Terrier in a 1907 book on dogs.


Unlike their cousins, the Scottie and the Westie, Cairns aren’t strongly associated with a particular color. They come in a variety of forms of brindle, but are also commonly seen with wheaten or reddish/wheaten coloration.

Red/wheaten Cairn Terrier sitting next to brindle Cairn Terrier
Cairns are commonly seen in both red/wheaten and various forms of brindle.


Toto catapulted the breed to fame with his appearance in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Or shall we say her appearance? Toto was actually played by a female Cairn Terrier named Terry. Though she never had another role as memorable as Toto, Terry was no one-hit wonder – she appeared in a total of 16 films.

Toto and Dorothy in a promotional photo for the film The Wizard of Oz
Toto (played by a female Cairn named Terry) appears in a publicity photo with Dorothy (Judy Garland).


Outside of Oz, Cairns have made many other appearances in movies and TV shows, including I Love Lucy, Hocus Pocus, Kingsman: The Secret Service, and Mr. Robot. These Cairn actors all owe a debt of gratitude to Toto/Terry.

Owning a Cairn

Cairn Terriers are wonderful family dogs that have the temperament and toughness to play with children all day long. They also adapt well to apartments, though like all terriers, they need daily exercise and interaction.

Here are some other points about Cairns to consider before bringing one into your life.

Shedding. Cairns shed less than you might expect given their frizzy coats. The dog’s hair tends to mat rather than fall out. To remove loose hair, you need to brush the dog regularly.

Grooming. The Cairn is a double-coated terrier, with a wiry outer coat and soft undercoat. To maintain the outer coat, you need to have the dogs regularly hand-stripped. However, many people who keep Cairns as pets simply have the dogs clipped and let the soft coat take over.

Cairn Terrier sitting outside in the grass panting
Cairns – especially darker colored ones – tend to get overheated in warm weather. A summer cut can relieve a lot of their discomfort.

Not a Lap Dog. Cairns give kisses freely, and are perhaps one of the licking-est breeds around. However, they tend to resist anything they see as containment, which includes sitting on a lap or being held.

Hard-Headedness. Cairns were bred to be independent hunters of small animals, and thus aren’t the most obedient dogs. They can be difficult to control, and will seek out adventure if given the opportunity.

Barking. Cairns tend to be very vocal. You may find them perched in a window barking at passersby, or causing a ruckus when someone comes to the door. If this becomes a problem, try increasing the amount of exercise and outside time the dog gets. The Cairn should mellow out if given a chance to blow off some steam.

If you think you can handle a Cairn Terrier, make sure to do some research and pick a reputable breeder. Better yet, consider adopting from one of the many Cairn Terrier rescue organizations out there.

Just because a dog has been surrendered does not mean there’s something wrong with it. In most cases, it’s the dog’s previous owner who made the mistake in thinking they could care for an active and strong-willed dog like this.