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Cairn Terrier running in the grass.
©Mikkel Bigandt -

The Cairn Terrier is one of several breeds that emerged on the wild, windswept Isle of Skye and in the Scottish Highlands as early as the 1600s. Originally used for the unglamorous job of clearing vermin from farms, the Cairn eventually headed to Hollywood.

The best-known Cairn ever was a movie star, playing the role of the mischievous canine sidekick in “The Wizard of Oz.” Many people know Toto, but we bet there are a lot of Cairn Terrier facts that will come as a surprise, even to die-hard fans of the Emerald City.

1. Cairns Are Bold Dogs

Nothing’s refined about them and that is a point of pride among Cairn people. “I call them scruffy little Toto dogs,” notes a longtime fancier. One 1937 book put it this way: “The Cairn is a cave-dog — an innate barbarian, truculent, fearless.”

2. They’re Named After a Pile of Rocks

The word “cairn” refers to a stack of stones, formed either naturally or by human hands, that is used as road markers and memorials. These are prime real estate for mice, rats, and other small vermin, and the dogs were developed to go in and flush them out.

Cairn Terrier running and playing in the grass.
©OlgaOvcharenko -

3. Cairn Terriers Are Tiny

According to the AKC breed standard, females should weigh no more than 13 pounds, while males should weigh no more than 14 pounds. Their size was essential for their original purpose, which was to wriggle into burrows and rocky passages after critters.

4. They Have Unusual Feet

They tend to be left-pawed, but that’s not the only odd Cairn foot fact. Their front paws are well-padded and larger than their rear ones, traits that gave them an advantage when digging in their pursuit of rodents. For the average pet owner today, that means that you’d better protect (or give up on) your garden. Cairns just gotta dig.

5. Their Persistence Is Legendary

They do not give up. There is a story of a working Cairn in Britain whose job was to help clear otters from seaside rock formations. The terrier grabbed the otter and held tight, even after the animal plunged into the sea. His owner had to dive underwater to rescue his dog and found the little terrier with his teeth still in the otter.

Cairn Terrier running outdoors. Images Plus via Getty Images

6. Cairns Are Also Assertive

Cairn people have a saying, “If you give a Cairn an inch, he won’t take a mile; he’ll take 100 miles.” They have the potential to be unbelievably sweet, loving, fun companions, but they require solid training and well-established boundaries, notes the Cairn Terrier Club of America.

7. The Dog Who Played Toto Had a History

L. Frank Baum, author of the book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” did not specify Toto’s breed, and heated debate rages to this day over whether the dog was a Cairn or a Yorkshire Terrier. When it came to casting the character for the movie, studio executives were open to any breed. It just so happened that the right actor turned out to be a Cairn, who, like Toto, had gotten herself in big trouble.

She was a puppy named Terry who had been purchased as a pet. When her owners could not effectively potty train her, they dropped the dog off at a trainer and never returned. He happened to be Carl Spitz of the Hollywood Dog Training School, who prepared canine actors for movies, according to Willard Carroll in his book “I, Toto.” The rest is history.

Related article: Norwich Terrier vs. Cairn Terrier: How to Tell the Difference
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