Saturday, January 17, 2009


It’s tough to follow Tad Sims' passing with any subject as all would be mundane and inconsequential in comparison. Methinks Tad would gleefully approve this post as she loved all animals and especially anything Scottish.

As all of my Friends and many of my acquaintances are aware, my affection for Scotland and all things Scottish borders on the extreme to even manic proportions. That extends to our Caledonian canine Friends and basically to the thirteen breeds that originated in Scotland. These include some of the most famous and most brave, tenacious and intelligent dogs in the world. Yes, they surely mirror the most common attributes of the average Scot.

Recent examples of Scottish breeds with major public personas include the magnificent Scottish Deerhound named Cleod who plays the character Padfoot in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Who can forget the awesome Scottish Deerhound in John Boorman’s 1981 Le Morte D’Arthur classic, Excalibur? Lest we forget, in ancient Scotland only those with at least the rank of Earl could own a Deerhound. King Robert the Bruce of Scotland kept Deerhounds as did Scottish novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott, who described his Deerhound Maida as "The most perfect creature of heaven". They are now together, forever, in the Scott Monument in the Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh.

Many forget that Collies (aye, Lassie), Gordon Setters and that American favorite, the Golden Retriever, are all Scottish in origin. I have been told that Goldens can learn up to 240 commands, words and phrases and are renowned for their patience with children. For the record, this capacity greatly exceeds the limits of this writer and many of my Friends.

If you have been to any Dog Trials like the now famous Rural Hill Sheep Dog Trials in Huntersville, NC presented by the Catawba Valley Scottish Society you know that they are a perfect example of the intelligence and perseverance of the working Scottish Border Collie. You have got to see these dogs in action… The sheep industry in Scotland and around the world could not have survived without the Border Collie.

As a sidebar, remembering The Clearances, they were probably part of the Sassenach conspiracy to replace people with sheep. Read James Prebble’s The Highland Clearances and you will understand. Even to this day the infamous Sutherland factor Patrick Sellars conjures contempt and disgust.

But, we pay homage today to the wily and highly intelligent Cairn Terrier, native to the Highlands of Scotland and the Isle of Skye. The son of Mary Queen of Scots, King James VI of Scotland & James I of England referred to these prized terriers as “earth dogges" and gifted them to Friends.

Originally bred as hunting dogs they remain working dogs on farms where they ferret out furry pests and vermin like rats and mice. Despite their diminutive size they demonstrate what are seemingly to most - delusions of grandeur. They appear fearless - unafraid of anybody or anything. One soon learns that the Cairns are fully prepared to back up their bark with the appropriate response. The Cairn in more politically incorrect times helped to hunt burrowing prey like badgers, foxes, and weasels almost gleefully crawling into their dens and forcing these unwanted animals out. The irony is that this Kennel Club of Great Britain (KCGB)/American Kennel Club (AKC) breed may have been named last but genetically is probably the closest to the original terriers working the Scottish Highlands.

Cairns developed into fierce, independent protectors, a trait they still own and demonstrate in backyards around the world as they stalk and chase real or imagined prey (why am I doing this?!) usually to the chagrin of birds, rabbits, possums, armadillos, squirrels, pets in the neighborhood, delivery people of all genres and unsuspecting neighbors walking their pets down the sidewalk. The courageous cairn was incorporated into home and hearth early in its history where it even now reposes as a loyal companion and ever vigilant watchdog.

Vancouver psychologist Stanley Coren, one of the world’s leading experts on dog behavior, has written, The Modern Dog, a collection of anecdotes and reminiscences that center mostly on his own Cairn Terrier, Flint, who was gifted to him by wife Joan. This is a must read for any dog fancier.

Flint is a bundle of brown brindle fur who despite a checkered and insubordinate past would eventually earn obedience champion honors in Canada. Despite these awards Coren appropriately compares Flint with another gift his wife gave him - a 12-gauge shotgun. Wife Joan remains exasperated and far from enamored of Flint and mostly because of Flint’s favorite game, “The Barbarians are coming!”

It seems that Flint routinely transitions peaceful and tranquil times to pandemonium and chaos. A passing automobile, the slightest wind gust or shaft of sun/moon light can initiate endless and frenzied staccato barking and jumping displays of herculean proportions. Nothing, however, could compare with Flint’s reaction to a movie that featured an attack of giant rats. As Coren relates in The Modern Dog, Flint, “launched himself off the sofa and attacked the wooden stand on which the television stood. Growling, barking, slashing, chewing—he desperately tried to grab hold of the table leg and shake it to death. Meanwhile the rat scene had drawn to a close. The squeals were now gone and no rodents were visible any longer on the face of the tube. Flint backed off and looked up. He snorted once or twice through his nose, then with tail erect and legs stiff, proudly walked out of the room, pausing only once to glance at the TV to make sure that his job of saving us from the onslaught of vermin was truly finished.” This outburst would appear to be the norm rather than the exception for Flint and Cairns in general. The above was found on, Canada’s only on-line national weekly news magazine. We heartily recommend.

While a resident of Atlanta I had a great relationship with a Cairn Terrier named Skye who belonged to my next door neighbor, uncommon good Friend and harpist extraordinaire, Jan Pennington. Skye was Jan’s constant companion and protector who provided great Friendship to The Pennington Family. Skye and her extended Family and Friends were rewarded by her longevity of fourteen years.

Skye had what they call a wheaten color (aye, just like it sounds), as opposed to the more common brindled (black with gray/silver). The Cairn’s weather-resistant outer coat can be cream, wheaten, red, sandy, gray, or brindled in any of these colors.

Skye was protective of all her Friends including this writer and adopted a credible Highland persona. Word was that Jim Pennington was even able to teach him how to play the great Highland Bagpipes!

Cairns have had their movie successes including that most famous of Cairns, Terry, a female terrier who played the role of a male Cairn named "Toto" in the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz (TWOZ) where she was Judy Garland’s constant companion, on and off the movie set. The reality is that the whole plot of TWOZ revolved around the little Cairn Terrier whose antics get “him” in trouble landing he and Dorothy into the Kingdom of Oz. Bottom Line: Terry was in almost every scene in the movie. The rest is history.

Even before The Wizard of Oz Terry was already a star and eventually made a total of fourteen movies. She also worked with her favorite actress Shirley Temple as well as Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, among many others.

Other Cairn Terriers also appeared in other big Hollywood movies to include Rusty who played Mrs. Muir's dog in the 1947 classic, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir alongside Rex Harrison, Gene Tierney and my personal favorite, Natalie Wood. Since then cairns have played great roles in movies and on the small screen. We might also mention that US President (and Friend to my grandfather, Colonel Buxton) Teddy Roosevelt’s son Jack had a Cairn affectionately named Kermit Roosevelt. The dog was named for one of Roosevelt’s ancestors, not the Frog - or vice versa.

Like many of their Scots owners, Cairn Terriers have an endearing quality – they can be quite verbal. This does not mean that they are always problem barkers, but they will "talk", and grumble, and will mostly communicate with sharp, staccato barks that can sometimes peel the label off a tomato can.

I have a good Friend, a brindle (black and silver) Cairn Terrier named Willa who rules the roost at one very special and magical North Dallas household. When motivated Willa will sit down (or stand unsupported on her two hind legs) in front of you and looking straight in your eyes and with strikingly animated head and lower jaw moves, “talks,” seemingly emulating humans, emitting a wide spectrum of from high to low pitched mostly groans and yawning noises (mouthing sounds). These encounters and vocalizations which can last for a few seconds to a few minutes are Willa’s way of requesting to be let outside, plea for bathroom facilities, play, affection or requesting a biscuit or that ever coveted Greenie®. Her vet says that she is a, “talker.”

I have seen some cute clips on U-Tube where some dogs were trained by their owners to yowl and groan on cue. The difference is that behavior was part of a training regimen where the payoff was a treat (Pavlov) and not a “sincere” motivation that came from the animal. Willa’s voice appears to be some sort of attempt at socialization and communication with humans, a premise backed up by the theories of canid/animal researcher and behaviorist Dr Dorit Feddersen-Petersen of the Zoological Institute at the University of Kiel in Germany.

Dr.Feddersen-Petersen reflects that canines have learned many nuances ofcommunication during the 14,000 years they have lived with humans, "Some of the more modern dog species like the terrier and sheep dog have a wide barking spectrum which is intended as a means of communication with man." Why is it that the Scots Breeds only, “get it?”

Willa also remains a key protector of her owner though her attentions are generally directed at a submersible pool cleaner rechristened Nessie that makes its rounds several times a day on the bottom of the pool. That movement and the occasional spray of water are sufficient to entertain and keep Willa occupied for hours to the understandable chagrin of her immediate neighbors. Reflections of the moon and even the occasional ripple on the surface of the water appear to elicit the same response of DNA-driven territorial imperative and thoughtless angst/engagement with a stiffened aggressive posture and that always predictable intense staccato barking. Nessie always retires to her slumber on the bottom of the pool, no doubt because of Willa’s defensive ministrations. Having defeated the monster Willa, like Coren’s Flint, not knowing its primal attribution, proudly surveys her victory, snorts, aggressively scratches the ground with all fours and then with head high looks for praise (undeserved or not) from her hooch mates.

So the frisky, determined, independent and devoted bundles of energy we know as Cairns continue to hold their own and protect us from the madding crowd and despite a few frustrating, selfish moments, provide us with an uncommon joy. Now it seems that they are also even trying to communicate with us at a higher level (Planet of the Cairn Terriers?).

You will have to excuse me now as Willa has requested an audience and a debate of Robert Burns’, The Twa Dogs. Seems that Willa is infatuated with fellow quadraped and Burns’ Border Collie, Luath, and would like to reflect on the contrast between the life of the rich and poor in 18th century Scotland, a contrast that Burns and Luath experienced firsthand. Should be a winner. If I could just get her to teach me how to splay…


Ned Buxton

No comments: