Back to Basics: A Breed Comparison of the Cairn, West Highland White and Scottish Terriers

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That game, hardy, vermin-hunting dog of the Highlands of Scotland traces his lineage back at least 500 years into the mists of Scottish history. He came in a wide variety of sizes and coat textures. His practical Highland owners did not concern themselves with the appearance of their dogs, but rather with gameness, fearlessness and a disregard for any pain inflicted by the vermin the dogs hunted.

These tough, tenacious little hunters all went to ground eagerly, passionately and singlemindedly — so much so that many tales still exist of dogs lost underground attempting to push their way through rocks or tree roots and becoming fatally stuck. Long before the days of collars with GPS locating signals, owners of hunting terriers depended upon their dogs barking long and loudly to guide the shovels of their humans to rescue them. At times rescue proved impossible. The dog couldn’t expand its ribcage enough to bark loudly due to being wedged too tightly in its underground snare. Sometimes, the dog had descended too deeply underground to be heard.

The life of a working terrier was wet, cold, dark and dangerous — and he loved it! One of the hallmarks of terrier temperament to this day is their enthusiasm for everything in life. Terriers have an oversized ego that leads them to firmly believe they can take on any foe, rise to any challenge — and win!

Such disparity of type among these terriers of the past lent itself well to the development of at least five modern breeds of terriers: the Skye, Dandie Dinmont, Cairn, West Highland White and the Scottish Terrier. This article will compare the latter three breeds. The main determiners of type and shape in terriers during previous centuries were the species of vermin hunted and the terrain over which the dog had to travel to locate that vermin. In the Highlands of Scotland and the islands off its west coast, that terrain consisted of rugged, rocky ground interspersed with bogs.

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