Earthdogs - Size and Proportions of the Cairn & Others


Revised 2012.

(As They Relate to Function and AKC & UK Breed Standards, with Special Attention to Leg-length Ratios  and the Tendency toward 13-, 14-, and 15-inch Cairns.  Plus, Comments on Other Short Terriers.) 

Several people over the years have commented on my article “A Matter of Proportion” first published in magazines, and later on websites such as In that particular piece, I was discussing the differences and similarities between the international GSD and gundogs such as the Vizsla. I am a strong proponent of form being based on function, as you will see in many other web and magazine articles. In addition, some related comments on proportions have been noticed in my series on various forms of dwarfism (found on the same sites). More recently, some “earthdog” fanciers (breeders and competitors with Cairns, Westies, Jack Russells, Norfolks, etc.) asked for an article that might help them understand and better establish the proportions of terriers bred for working foxes, badgers, and vermin.
The game is the same (go to ground, in the quarry’s lair, and flush or drag him out), but the “game” in the sense of what species is being hunted will vary a little in size from the small rats to the large otters. Despite a miniscule percentage of terriers ever likely to be asked to enter a burrow after such prey or pest, the purists in the world of dog fanciers want the breed to remain true to its original purpose, including matters of health and soundness, temperament and gameness, and anatomical suitability for the work that the ancestors once did.

As a judge in the show ring, I look for these traits and others (such as coat texture, dentition, etc.) that relate to the historic utility of the breed. My first purebred dog was a Toy Fox Terrier in 1937. My grandparents were Airedale people. My first litter was Smooth Fox Terriers in 1945. I used to handle Cairns in the 1960s and `70s including some bred by Betty Hyslop (Cairndania) and a few by Mrs. Sandra Murray (Cairncroft), and since then have judged all sorts of terriers in UKC and many foreign shows. Although I have preferred to breed and train other breeds for many years, my claim to being “a terrier man” has legitimacy. I have “talked terriers” with Mildred Bryant, John Marvin, Richard Beauchamp, Elliott Weiss, Ric Chashoudian, and many other terrier luminaries. My positions as teacher for SCJA, WV Canine College, and guest lecturer at numerous vet schools, and my long judging experience as well as professional acceptance of my books, have given me more than adequate credentials in canine anatomy.

It is from this background that I presume to speak to long-time terrier experts and aficionados. I have also judged in the homeland and repository of most of the world’s best terriers. If the magazine or website that carries this article has room, you can see the Kerry Blue and the Miniature Schnauzer I put up at a show in Ireland for Best- and Reserve-Best- in-Show. I have seen the heather and gorse that require a tight harsh coat on many terriers. I have felt the cold damp that only a tough, spirited example of a terrier would tolerate. I have scrambled over the cairns (rocks) that characterize Ireland and the western portions of Wales, Scotland, and England, which call for tight feet and soundness of limbs. I also appreciate the beautiful over the ugly, and as a show judge, must reward that in the absence of any evidence as to the exhibits’ abilities in dens, burrows, and tunnels. Keeping in mind, that is, the essential qualities that make the dog look like it is able to do the work!

Sandra Murray had (somewhat excessively, I feel) taken Feffie (Ferelith) Somerfield to task for wanting to see grace and gait in the ring. In the absence of a separate show class for dogs with working-trial championships, a show judge can only be what one great dog man called a “guesser.” We must imagine the dog in the field when we see it in the ring, and not ask to see its battle ribbons. What Feffie meant was just what I mean: the dog with class, style, elastic gait, soundness, and spirit who wins the show competition will be the one that others will breed to. If a correct-size terrier is butt-ugly and has no more working credentials than one that spans a wee bit more in circumference, which one is going to contribute the better genes to the future of the breed? It is a hard decision, so it behooves breeders to test and prove their beauties and to breed their best game dogs.

Still, I strongly supported Mrs. Murray’s efforts to keep her breed within height and girth limits conducive to function. I agree with the efforts of the Cairn Terrier Club of America re the “preservation of the working Cairn [to] help our breed avoid the fate of the American Cocker Spaniel [vs.] the traditional Cocker Spaniel, the [Japanese Akita] [vs.] the [American] Akita, as well as the American Shetland Sheepdog [vs.] the UK Shetland Sheepdog, all cited by Mrs. Murray as examples of breeds ‘at the crossroads’ that split in two.” The CTCA is trying to “bring the Cairn back from the brink of modernity and exhibition-only status.” A status that they claim has evolved in the lands of the breed’s origins and elsewhere in Europe and Australia.

Referring to what he delightfully labels “generic movement,” one Cairn fancier wrote me, “Further, why is it necessary for the Cairn to lope around the ring like a GSD in order to win? Is it a plus for the Cairn?” I agree. When I judge non-herding breeds and others whose heritage does not require endurance trotting, all I need is a glimpse of soundness and relative firmness of back, and then I can concentrate on breed type and the appearance of utility.

A Word About Spanning

Novice judges (and exhibitors who are barely more than novices) get all excited about the topic of spanning. Don’t get me wrong… it is important, but only those with an unpracticed eye would have to measure the chest circumference of every dog on the floor or table. As an example, as a competitor in Whippets and an all-breed handler for many years, I got to be quite accurate in estimating a dog’s withers height by eye alone, and from a distance, not just by seeing how far up alongside my pants leg it stood. At the National Dobe specialty in New Orleans one year, at a judges/breeders conference, I called out the exact height of every dog presented in the seminar — when measured with the wicket, my “measurement” was spot-on. I’m not saying this will happen every time, but experience sharpens the senses. If you are in doubt, measure the biggest Whippet or Cairn or whatever, and then work down to the next-biggest until you develop the “eye” for size.

The correct go-to-ground dog, whether a Jack Russell by its various names or Cairn or other terrier, needs to have legs short enough and chest small enough to enter, maneuver, and exit the convoluted burrows of its quarry. Most of these earthdogs will have a span of approximately 15 inches, or the size of a DVD or computer CD, said to be roughly equivalent to circle made by a man’s thumbs and middle fingers. However, a petite woman judge is going to have a much different idea of that span than Eubie Blake or Kareem Abdul Jabar would. It’s grossly inaccurate, but it’s the “tool” that is recommended to us by tradition. I caught some flack once by a woman who complained that I did not span all the Jack Russells shown under me that day. I didn’t have to, because I could easily see that they would not be over the limit… with my finger measurement, at least. If I have to squeeze, he’s not going to go far that day. In breeds where there is a height disqualification, all a judge need do if there is a question in his mind, is measure the biggest dog and, if it measures “in”, then he doesn’t have to do it to the next-tallest.

Others may complain about the way the dog is spanned. Most dogs are stood on the table and are spanned from above, the thumbs at the withers, the fingers meeting under and between the elbows. I have, on occasion, additionally used a technique taught to me by some old-timer hunters in Great Britain: pick the dog up, facing you, and hang him with your hands encircling the thorax behind the elbows. There are slight differences when you do this, so as long as I can get my fingers around him without effort, and can envision him in the burrow, I’ll give him a chance to move on to further competition with winners of the other classes. Still, I keep in mind that, as Sean Albert has said, “If a dog has a chest larger than about 16 inches in circumference, he will be unable to go after a fox.” And I would not want to envision a terrier getting trapped by his own bulk while going after a flexible fox or any other game.

Leg Length

Quoting Joan Garber (who was quoting someone else, I think), “In the early 1900's Scottish, West Highland White and Cairn Terriers could come from the same litter and often were interbred. It wasn't until 1917 that the AKC decreed that no Cairn could gain registration if its pedigree carried a West Highland White Terrier ancestor within the first three generations. The Kennel Club [UK] followed soon after, in 1924, with a decree that white pups born in litters of Cairns could no longer be registered as West Highland Whites.” These breeds have diverged a little, but still retain similarities. Certainly they should all appear “game” in temperament and form.

My attention has been called to a debate about whether the Cairn is a “short-legged” terrier. Let me make a generalization here, which may help beginners to understand. Normally the smaller the dog, the less relative leg length they have. The more they are bred for earth work, the more noticeable this should be. Look at the extremes: the small earthdog terriers vs. the desert courser such as the Saluki, Sloughi, Afghan, etc. The Sighthound has considerably more “daylight” under its chest than the shorter, non-coursing breeds. Even the “compromise” (all-purpose) intermediate-height breeds such as the GSD are supposed to have 45 to 50% of their height made up of chest depth, but the majority is air beneath its sternum and elbows. When you get down to the Springer Spaniel build, it is about 50/50, and when you consider the short-legged but non-dwarf dogs like Cairns and Cockers (and the incorrect AKC and “Alsatian” GSDs), the chest depth begins to account for more than 50% of the height at the withers. Earthdogs like the Cairn will have a leg length noticeably less than 50% of their total height. Lower clearance means better crawling ability in burrows. The Dachshund (a different type of earthdog) belongs to the achondroplastic club, its height determined more by lower limbs that would be abnormal in other breeds.

The Cairn has height-to-length proportions more like the American Cocker than like the longer-legged terriers designed to handle above-ground bigger game. So, depending on whether you are comparing it to a dwarf like the Corgi or a courser/trotter like an Airedale, GSD, or Azawakh, the term “short-legged terrier” is very accurate. The purpose of relatively short legs for badger dogs and subterranean terriers is to facilitate crouching and crawling in tight places not much bigger than the dog’s chest.

Of course, when Thelma Brown referred to the Cairn as the “longest of the short-legged terriers” (Cairn Terrier Club of America Newsletter of February, 1976), she was not comparing its body length to the extreme such as the modern Skye Terrier. When she used that phrase, I would interpret that as talking about leg length within the short-legged realm, rather than to the length of torso. Although some Cairns’ legs may be proportionately slightly longer than a couple of these other small, short terriers, the breed is still in the same leg-length-to-withers-height proportion category. They certainly should not start looking like bushy Borders or rough-coated Rat Terriers, nor as low slung as the Dandie or Skye (or perhaps even the average Scottie?). The ideal GSD has a height to length ratio of anywhere between 8.5 high to 10 long, and 9:10. The fad GSD in the AKC ring is usually between 8:10 and the correct rang; sometimes longer, and almost always far too deep in chest, as if it had some Basset Hound in its family tree. The Cairn should stand in a range somewhere around 6.7 to 10 up to around 7:10. That’s a considerably different proportion picture than seen in larger dogs.

But an experienced eye and hand, and an understanding of historic function are far better than the measuring tape and wicket. If you start making measurements (and they will vary depending on whether you sneeze before or after reading the tape!), you will get bogged down and unable to see the forest for the trees. Your best choices for judges will be those who have seen earthwork or have seen foxes and other animals of the size the Cairn is supposed to come close to. Next to that, comes the set of judges who have handled, bred, or studied many dozens of Cairns. I remember a dapper little judge who got his AKC license for many breeds partly on the basis of being married to a famous breeder-judge and partly in the traditional way of playing footsies with the AKC decision-makers. He once remarked (aloud in the ring, and in all seriousness) about some dogs in the ring having an “eee-wee” neck. Once we figured out what he meant, it was painfully obvious that he had never seen a female sheep (otherwise known as a “ewe”) and that nobody ever corrected him that it was pronounced like the 21st letter of the alphabet. You’d better choose judges who, in the words of Meredith Wilson, “know the territory,” meaning they understand the terrain and tunnels these dogs must work in, as well as the animals they hunt.


Many breeds have become larger than they were in the early days of their respective histories. The GSD is a good two inches taller than a century or more ago. The Cairn generally is one-half to one inch taller, perhaps more. Breeders and judges must get together on an equal footing and amiably discuss the direction their breeds are taking. If there is good reason to limit height, as there is in a breed where straying would make it look like a different member of the family or group, then a maximum wicket-mandated withers height is in order. Such as for the Italian Greyhound and the Whippet. But if it is proven that a 10.5-inch Cairn or Westie can go after a fox or other prey with success, you shouldn’t have to imagine a 10-inch wicket on the breed in the show ring. So, breeders, concentrate on spirited dogs who resemble in size the few actual working terriers (before Britain outlaws the sport), and judges, keep in your minds a vision of the tunnel and the dog that should be able to go through it. Judges with large hands perhaps should try to make sure that their fingers overlap a little when spanning these dogs.

How does a judge estimate the size of a dog without using a wicket? (If it isn’t required, it won’t be allowed in the ring, so you’d have to do your practice measuring away from the site.) The answer is the same as for the question “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”: “Practice, practice, practice!” Some judges palpate the dogs in the ring so much that it looks like a doggie “massage”; I used to do a little, but not quite that much, until I started apprenticing to be an SV judge and started relying on my eyes and brain. Except for smaller shows, where the vet and assistant judges have not already checked tattoos, teeth and testicles, SV judges almost never lay a hand on the dogs in the ring. We don’t have to. But habit is as tough as a boomerang to throw away. For matters of size, I have used such familiar mental images as these examples: U.S. currency is six inches. A male Cairn should not stand (much) taller than the old 10-inch vinyl records I used to play in the 1950s. You can start with such helps as you learn to estimate size.


Before we finish, allow me to urge you to read my other articles and books, with emphasis on those dealing with canine structure. Several of them expose the myths surrounding angles. In that regard let’s also briefly mention the topic of Breed Standards. Take the Norwich/Norfolk, as examples. One of them states, “Short powerful legs… straight…” and… “The feet point forward” and these are clues to one difference between these dogs and the achondroplastic ones such as Corgis. The term, “well laid-back shoulders” in most Standards is far preferable to the old British Norfolk “requirement” of 90 degrees, as that angle simply does not exist. Even in the dwarf dogs, you will not find 90 degrees on any radiograph of a standing dog, no matter how superior the example. More wisely, that has been left out of the US Standards for the Norfolk, Norwich, Sealyham, and Scottie. I also urge judges and breeders to not worry about wording that describes the scapula and upper arm as ideally being of equal lengths. Believe me, there are no really good points from which to start measuring, and your eyes and fingers are not reliable. Just look for the “superior” dogs… they will be the ones with better reach and a bit more forechest in front of their forelegs. Even then, in an earthdog, this is nowhere near as important as in a herding-trotting breed.

A closing word—one of my correspondents asked for a simple definition or distinction between the words “style” and “type.” A lot of words can be spent, but I propose this: TYPE is a description of the breed, and STYLE refers to the variations allowed within that description.

p.s. For those who want to delve deeper, you can search for articles by Sean Albert regarding the Cairn Terrier’s origins and uses.

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