6 min read


Why Are Cairn Terriers Hard To Train



6 min read


Why Are Cairn Terriers Hard To Train




So, you've decided to take the plunge into the wild world of Terrier ownership. After months of thorough research and picture ogling, you've decided that the Cairn Terrier is the dog for you. You've carefully selected a responsible breeder of excellent reputation and been approved to go on a waiting list for a puppy. Oh, the excitement on the day that your breeder calls to say that a little Cairn Terrier puppy awaits you! You begin to gather all of the things every puppy needs, and to be on the safe side, a few things just for fun too. Armed with the knowledge that every puppy benefits from a puppy socialization class, that's on your list of things to do too. But when you start calling around to sign your little darling up for puppy classes, each trainer emits a little chuckle when you tell them your puppy is a Cairn Terrier. You can't help but wonder why. What do these trainers know that you don't? Is your little bundle of joy bound to live up to the common nickname the Cairn Terror? Could your beloved and much anticipated puppy turn out to be the ruler of you?

The Root of the Behavior

Cairn Terriers are a beloved breed worldwide. If you've watched the iconic film The Wizard of Oz, you have seen the most well-known Cairn Terrier of all time, Toto, in action. This breed has been described by the American Kennel Club as "a small, shaggy, alert dog, with head, tail, and ears up, and eyes shining with intelligence." Aficionados of the breed espouse the Cairn's loyalty, independent spirit, affectionateness, and game personality. They are a breed with low grooming and moderate exercise requirements, making them well-suited to average family living. Cairn Terriers also love children and are amenable to living in a multi-pet household when suitable socialization occurs. With so many wonderful qualities to commend them, it is easy to see why this breed is well-loved by so many. However, Terriers are still Terriers, and Terriers come with a fierce stubborn streak. All Terriers are intelligent, and in the early days of the breed, most were highly prized for their natural instincts and problem-solving capabilities. However, this innate intelligence and independence have created a dog that does not value teamwork. He's been wired for an entirely different purpose. This, of course, can make training your Cairn Terrier all the more challenging. In considering training the Cairn Terrier, it is important to revisit the history of the breed. 

To best understand your dog, you need to comprehend the genetic influences that have shaped the dog you have in your home today. Cairn Terriers were originally bred as hunting companions for their owners. The breed was originally developed in Scotland with the purpose of rooting out nuisance rodents that wreaked havoc with their owner's homestead. Like other Terriers such as the Border Terrier and the Parson Russell Terrier, Cairn Terriers are dogs that were bred to "go to ground." Because of this, the Cairn's job on the hunt was to follow quarry into tunnels or dens underneath the earth and drive them back above ground for the hunter to catch. For this reason, independent thought was extremely valuable. The hunter required a dog who understood his job and fulfilled it without the need for direction. What does this mean for Cairn Terrier owners today? It means that following instructions is more of a foreign concept for your dog. In the field, your dog's ancestors intuitively knew precisely what to do, and they did it. They followed their own natural instincts and were richly rewarded for it. But in today's world, many of these deeply ingrained habits are things we don't like in our modern homes. We are at odds as we work to change things in our Terriers that come to them very naturally. 

Need advice about your pet's health?

Get answers fast from a veterinary professional 24/7 in the Wag! App.

Get Vet Chat

Encouraging the Behavior

Fighting genetic traits is always a difficult thing. Your Cairn Terrier was bred for a purpose, and though your dog may never be used to hunt, those instincts remain vitally alive within him. Does this mean that Cairn Terriers are untrainable? It's actually quite the opposite. Cairn Terriers are highly intelligent, and like most Terriers, they will respond well to positive reinforcement training. However, their attention span is generally shorter than that of dogs belonging to another dog group such as the working or herding groups. It is important to note that your Cairn Terrier does not think that he needs you. He certainly did not need his owner to tell him how to do his job on a hunt. Part of training a Terrier is teaching the dog to seek direction from you and for you to work as a team. The simplest means to accomplish this is to use exceptionally high-value treats and to develop a skill for making the Terrier think the activity that you are working on was his idea in the first place.

With Terriers, the biggest hurdle is focus. If you gain and keep your Cairn Terrier's focus, you can teach him.virtually anything. Cairn Terriers have very definite ideas about what they want to do, and they rarely include what you want them to do. This is not uncommon amongst Terriers. Because of this, it is critical that all of your training sessions be short and fun. Realistically, there will be days when you and your Cairn begin a training exercise and your Cairn makes it abundantly clear that he is not going to do what you want him to. It is vital for you to realize that all dogs have off days. Rather than sternly scolding your dog or forcing behavior that could cause training setbacks, simply decide to forego your training plan and move on to a fun activity that you and your dog can enjoy together. Tomorrow is a new day. By not insisting on a rigid training schedule, you allow your dog the freedom to be a dog. Just as you sometimes don't feel like doing a task at a set time, your dog feels the same way, and you can cut your dog a little slack from time to time. Your training sessions will improve and become more productive with this one simple insight.

Other Solutions and Considerations

Though Terriers often seem to "blow off" their owners more often than other breeds, they do love their families and want to please them. Because of this, your praise is one of the most powerful motivators as a tool for training your dog. Since dogs often repeat behavior that gives them their desired response, you greatly increase the chances of seeing a behavior you like again if you lavish praise on your dog every time he offers it. As with all dogs, training must be consistent to be effective. Make certain that you use the same command words each session in order to prevent any confusion which could lead to training frustration for you and your dog. Also, if there is a behavior you are trying to change, it is important that you never reward it, even inadvertently.

Terriers thrive on weakness. If you give in to them even once, you will set your training back ten-fold. You must learn to be more tenacious and stubborn than your dog. This is not easy because your dog was bred to stand his ground, but for the good of your Cairn Terrier and your relationship with him, you must be resolute. Most of all, it is vital that you be patient. Setbacks happen all the time. It will seem that you take five steps forward then ten steps back. A behavior that Fido had down pat, he now seems to think you have never taught him at all. This is normal and to be expected. Continue on, doing the things you know to be right, and consistency of behaviors will come in time. Sharing your home with a Cairn Terrier is a wonderful experience, and training one does not have to be an onerous task. It's all in understanding your breed and how best to approach them. 


Why are Cairn Terriers so hard to train? You have chosen a breed that was valued for its independent spirit and problem-solving abilities. While we love our little Cairn Terror-ists with all of our hearts, we do still need to teach them some basic canine manners. Armed with some yummy treats, lavished praise, and lots of patience, your Cairn Terrier can learn to be the best canine member on your block!

By a Parson Russel Terrier lover Jason Homan

Published: 04/06/2018, edited: 01/30/2020

What do you think?

Wag! Specialist
Does your pet have a supplement plan?

Learn more in the Wag! app

Five starsFive starsFive starsFive starsFive stars

43k+ reviews


© 2022 Wag Labs, Inc. All rights reserved.