Cairn Terriers belong to the terrier breed of dogs. Bred for hunting, the short-legged, small, furry dogs are far from the “lapdogs” they are often mistaken for. Though they are good companions and make great apartment dogs, Cairns are not submissive. In fact, they are rather assertive and fearless go-getters. They also vocalize a lot, including howling, sometimes several times a day or for prolonged periods. Breeding and genetic tendencies, emotional triggers, concern for injured pack members, boredom in the dead of night, sounding the intruder signals, are some of the explanations advanced to explain howling. Though most of these explanations are hypotheses, with limited evidence to support them, they seem to hold true among most canines. These are discussed in greater detail below.
The Root of the Behavior
It is believed that wolves in the wild howled to round up other wolves that were separated from the pack. To your dog, you are part of his pack and when you leave, he yearns for you come back, especially if you have been gone for a long time. Hence your Cairn Terrier could be howling to get you to come back to the house. Dog behaviorists attribute separation anxiety as the reason behind howling when a dog is left alone, especially if the howling is persistent. This is the case especially when the howling is accompanied by other signs of distress such as attempts to escape, defecating on himself, digging, and destruction of property. Additionally, since Cairn Terriers were bred to be working dogs, being left alone can result in boredom. They need stimulation and physical activity, which their ancestors were accustomed to getting by going from rock to rock searching for vermin.
Howling is also a way of communication between pack members. You may have noticed that whenever your dog breaks into a howling spell, he will howl right back if you imitate him. This also happens when Cairn Terriers and most other dogs hear high pitched sounds which resemble howling, such as musical instruments. Though howling in such a case can be mistaken for singing, it is likely your dog thinks the sound from the instruments resemble howling and when he howls back, he is doing what he is expected to do. That is, he is communicating with you, his pack member. Noise from small animals in the yard can also trigger howling. This points at your dog’s innate instinct to track and capture vermin, a hunting activity that was normally followed by howling to alert the dog owner that a hunt was successful. Besides small animals, even noise from strangers approaching your house can cause your dog to howl. If you live in an apartment, you probably experience this a lot as a response to your neighbors’ comings and goings.
Encouraging the Behavior
Occasionally, your Cairn Terrier will howl in response to other dogs or because he caught something in your yard. It is okay if he does this for a short time and then stops afterward. But howling can become a nuisance if it happens too many times or for many hours at a time. The only way to discourage this behavior is by identifying the root cause and taking steps to address it. If you determine that your dog is howling because you leave him alone, do the following to address his boredom. One, find him another dog to be his companion. Do this over a long weekend or during the holidays, so that both dogs become well acquainted with each other. Two, make time in the yard a hunting and adventurous activity. For example, as Cairn Terriers were bred to look under rocks for small animals, adding some rocks in your yard will provide him sufficient ‘hunting’ time. Three, take him for a one-hour walk daily.
Though exercise is vital, training is a more effective way of helping your dog to remain quite when you need him to be. Counterconditioning and desensitization are forms of training recommended by the ASPCA to help dog owners deal with their dogs’ vocalization. These exercises will come in handy if you play musical instruments or live in a neighborhood with high-pitched sounds such as sirens. They are also helpful when a dog’s howling is emotional, as in the case with separation anxiety. You should consult a dog trainer to assist you with these methods, which when successful, will teach your dog that howling is bad behavior while silence earns him treats.
Other Solutions and Considerations
When looking for a dog to be a companion for your Cairn Terrier, consider the fact that this breed does not do well with pets that are smaller than them. It’s important to consult a dog breeder or expert to help find the right dog to match your terrier’s temperament. Otherwise, you risk confrontations that could end up in serious injuries for the new dog. As well, your dog may have learned that you go to him whenever he howls and therefore uses it as a tactic to get your attention. To discourage this attention seeking, you should ignore him whenever he howls. Do not touch him, speak to him or even look at him. When you notice a break in the howling, offer him a treat. Repeat this several times and he will start to see the behavior-reward pattern. Inform your neighbors what you are trying to do in case the training takes some time to yield results.
To sum up, your Cairn Terrier is a hunting dog. He is also of wolf ancestry. So, make no mistake, even with training, this boisterous hunter can never be completely quiet. At some point or another, he will howl, probably just to say ‘right back at you buddy’ whenever he thinks you are communicating with him. If the howling is too much, consult a trainer, dog behaviorist or veterinarian, otherwise, allow your Cairn Terrier the occasional howl.