My wife. My dog Flint. The war.

Joan had grown up with orderly, reliably predictable dogs. But this was a cairn terrier.

by Stanley Coren

My wife. My dog Flint. The war.

Vancouver psychologist Stanley Coren is one of the world’s leading experts on dog behaviour. In his latest book, The Modern Dog, an informal collection of anecdotes and reminiscences, Coren discusses how humans have bred dogs to particular ends over 14,000 years, instilling behaviour in them that often clashes with contemporary wishes, as Coren discovered personally. “Take the case of Joan and Flint,” he writes. “Joan is my wife, and Flint was her gift to me.”

Much of our bond with dogs comes from the fact that they are playful and uninhibited. We have actually bred playfulness into dogs by selecting for animals whose minds are much like those of wolf puppies all of their lives. It is their juvenile minds that makes dogs want to play and do the silly things that make us laugh. In humans the same behaviours would be evidence of a sense of humour.

As many owners will undoubtedly attest, though, playful dogs are not an unmitigated blessing. While such dogs are a joy to people who can handle the occasional bouts of chaos, they are an exasperation to those who cannot. Take the case of Joan and Flint. Joan is my wife, and Flint was her gift to me.

When I found myself without a dog for the ?rst time in my life, Joan knew that I would go crazy if I didn’t get one soon. She also knew that I had set my mind on a cairn terrier because they are extremely playful and make me laugh. When you spend your whole life in a research laboratory or at a keyboard writing, having a dog that makes you laugh is better for stress reduction than a psychotherapist. Joan announced that she was giving me a cairn puppy as a Christmas gift.

At that time he was only around three pounds of brown brindle fur. Named Flint, he would eventually become the number one cairn terrier in obedience competition in Canada. He would also grow up to own a large part of my heart and to be the bane of my wife’s existence.

The following year my wife bought me a 12-gauge shotgun for Christmas. My daughter by marriage, Kari, assured me that there was a clear symbolic connection between the two Christmas gifts.

Flint was a constant trial for Joan, a prairie girl who had grown up in a family that kept large sporting dogs—mostly retrievers, pointers, and hounds. They were trained to pay attention, to do what they were told, and to work silently. These working dogs were allowed into the house only when they were to be fed or when the temperature dropped to something around minus 40 and everyone was feeling guilty about their welfare. Quiet, order, reliability, predictability, and unobtrusiveness are values that Joan cherishes in her own life and also demands from her dogs. A terrier as a house dog was something completely beyond her experience.

Joan had never encountered the likes of this dog before and was not amused by his favourite game, “The Barbarians are coming!” Flint played this game with great vigor at random intervals on carefully selected days and nights. It always began with him leaping into the air with a furious round of barking that was explosive enough to be heard throughout the entire house. Next he rushed to a door or window or leapt onto the highest surface he could reach, such as a bed or a sofa. His timing was such that the game always seemed to start when the house was quiet, because Joan was reading, sewing, or napping. Careful investigation would often reveal that the triggering event was usually something innocuous, like the wind brushing tree branches against the house.

To keep my wife from disemboweling Flint at such moments, I explained to her that terriers are speci?cally bred to bark. A working terrier absolutely must bark when it is the least bit excited or aroused because in earlier times this alerted the hunters to the location of the burrow where the dog had pursued an animal into its den. It was the sound of the barking underground that told the hunters where to dig to uncover the fox or badger. The earliest terriers, which were not so ready to bark, had to wear collars with bells on them to guide hunters in their chase and digging. Unfortunately, many terriers choked to death when their collars caught on some obstruction underground. Others died because the hunters could not hear the tinkle of bells when fox and terrier were lost under the ground in a ?nal confrontation. A barking dog, however, could be heard, and hence found. My historical explanations were lost on Joan, especially when she had just been awoken two hours before the alarm clock was set to go off in the morning.

Flint had a mind of his own, and his likes and dislikes had no regard for Joan’s preferred lifestyle. She would shoo him off a chair, only to see him immediately jump up on the sofa. She would push him off one side of the bed, only to have him jump back up on the other. She would scold him for barking at the door, only to have him jump up and begin barking at the window.

In the genes of every terrier is the ability and desire to eliminate rats and other vermin. People who have not had direct experience with this aspect of terrier behaviour tend to think that the most ef?cient rat killers are cats. While cats are certainly ef?cient at killing mice, where stealth and patience are the most important qualities for the hunt, rats are often too large and vicious for cats to handle; hence, terriers were bred for the job. The general method that terriers use to dispatch their prey involves grasping the rat or other small mammal by the neck and giving it one or two swift shakes to break its neck.

Cairn terriers are no different from other terriers in that their desire to chase vermin, whether rats, mice, rabbits, or squirrels, is built in. The simplest way to arouse Flint to a frenzy of activity was to shine a spot of light on the ?oor with a ?ashlight and then to move the spot erratically around. A small moving target automatically elicits the pursuit response in terriers, and Flint would chase the spot with undying enthusiasm. The game would usually come to an end only when I grew too tired to continue, or the ?ashlight batteries began to fail.

Flint was one of the few dogs that I have owned that spontaneously watched television. My spunky dog had ?rst become interested when I turned the TV on to a program called The Littlest Hobo, a low-budget series that featured a German shepherd that wandered around the countryside, befriending various people and getting them out of trouble through his heroism and cleverness. When Flint saw this dog moving across the TV screen, his attention was immediately captured. He would stand up on his hind legs, the way that he often did at the windows to watch other dogs go by. If the dog disappeared from the screen, he would get closer and look slantwise in the direction that the dog had gone, perhaps trying to catch a glimpse of the disappearing furry star. After that he would always check the TV screen as he passed.

None of this caused any problems until the attack of the giant rats. I no longer remember the name of the ?lm being shown on TV that night, but I do remember some of the content. It involved scenes in which rats were occupying some abandoned structure. At his ?rst sight of them, Flint froze. A low territorial growl started, and he began to quiver with excitement. When the rodent stampede occurred, with all of the accompanying frantic rat sounds, Flint could contain himself no longer. He 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. In a matter of moments the wooden leg of the TV stand looked like it had gone through a war. 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 ?nished. I quickly rotated the TV table so that the damaged leg was against the far wall where the tooth marks would not be visible. I really didn’t want to have to explain this new episode of genetically generated terrier behaviour to Joan. Over the next couple of days I secretly repaired the damage.

Flint’s ability to hunt rodents did endear him to my wife for a while at least. He proved to be quite an ef?cient “varminting” dog. In his life he would kill rats, mice, moles, gophers, and even an opossum. Most of this was done out at our little farm that I often use when I am writing or just hiding from the world, especially during the summer. Flint’s thinning of the rodent population meant that Joan’s vegetable garden was more productive and there were fewer unwanted fur-bearing visitors trying to make their way into the house, garage, or cupboards where food was stored. His useful work was well appreciated by everyone in the house.

In the city, we live in an old house built around 1916. It is not sealed as well as it should be, especially around the basement area. Every year, as the autumn rains fall and the weather starts to turn cold, mice work their way inside. With a degree of patience and dedication that would make cat owners envious, Flint turned into a fabulous biological mousetrap. Joan was quite pleased with Flint’s pro?ciency. She would warmly praise him for his efforts, giving him a friendly pat and maybe even a treat.

Perhaps Flint saw this as his opportunity to make amends, or perhaps he just reverted to being a terrier with a sense of humour. In any event, one morning Flint decided to make his peace offering to Joan. It was quite early, and Joan awakened to the gentle pressure of Flint’s front paws resting on her. She looked down at him only to ?nd that he had deposited a mouse on her chest—still warm, but quite dead. I fear that the gift was not accepted in the tender and accommodating spirit with which it was offered.

As with many terriers, Flint’s motto was, “If two wrongs don’t make a right, try three.”

From The Modern Dog by Stanley Coren. Copyright © 2008 by SC Psychological Enterprises, Ltd. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.




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My wife. My dog Flint. The war.

  1. We also own a Cairn Terrier (Igby is his name). Like Flint, he is a never-ending source of giggles and frustration. Igby’s quite the charmer – he can sure “roll over” like nobody’s business. Funnily enough I do wonder if he’s part sloth – first business of the day is usually after noon and who ever is on doggie duty has to carry him down to the door at that! He has no patience for puppies and has been known to get huffy with poodles and pit bulls alike. We know it’s all talk, but it has tested our nerves more than once. Our four legged king of the castle is our friend and constant companion. He’s our little guard dog and comedian – a loyal little buddy with breath that stands your hair on end. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Thanks for your story and happy holidays!

  2. We bought our first dog last May. A litlle handful of a Cairn we call Abby. Your story explained a lot to us newbie dog owners. Abby plays The Barbarians are Coming! several times a day. And we always laugh when we toss her a stuffed toy that she then shakes the bejesus out of. It also explains her sudden bouts of barking, which, as much as I love her, put me over the edge of reason. I feel better also, that a pro like you who knows how to train a dog, still has a bundle of mischief. It take the sting out of the fact that we flunked out of puppy school!
    Thanks for giving me a new appreciation for her.

  3. I’ve always enjoyed Stanley’s attitude toward dogs, treating them with firmness yet kindness. And to read this article on a cairn this week just made my day! We adopted our second cairn Skye this past October, having lost our 14 year old cairn Nana to cancer in August. There truly is nothing like a terrier, especially a cairn. They are wonderful pets, providing such amusement and love. I’d never have anything else.

    BTW, I’m a member of a wonderful on-line group just for cairns and westies if anyone wants to join…www.terrierclub.com.

    • Kelly thanks for the website.. It looks great.

  4. Thanks for the article. Our Cairn is Luna. She is almost a year and what a lot of dog her size! She has incredible energy, running at great speed when off-leash for countryside rambles. I never owned a hunting dog before. It is amazing how little non-terrier owners think of her. Besides being clever, alert, and energetic, she is incredibly aggressive, fearless, and dominating. People don’t realize these dogs were bred to kill small animals, that they are little “bite-machines”. Luna tries to dominate any dog she meets. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t! But she always tries, even with Rottweilers. I couldn’t imagine owning a Cairn if I lived in a city, though. Luna absolutely loves the outdoors, including the winter wonderland. Where we live, we must keep close tabs on her. She is no match for a coyote pack or a cougar, even if she thinks she is! If you want to see a cool Cairn, watch The Wizard of Oz –Toto!!

  5. I few years ago , I decided to get my first dog. After much research we decided a Cairn was what we wanted.. my husband didn’t want a ‘puffy’ little dog.. Certainly Cairns don’t know they are small.

    Wee Geordiie was my first dog, so I signed us up for obedience classes for ten weeks.
    Geordie interupted many of the classes by doing exactly what HE wanted to do!
    The trainer would always laugh and everyone was always telling us what a ‘character’ he was… and it was so true.
    We would practice at home, and Geordie would continue to do only what he wanted to do.
    So we’d go back to class the following week, and he’d do everything perfectly.
    We continued going to this 10 week class for a year. The trainer would say….”better come back next week”
    At the graduation at the end of the year…. Wee Geordie and I were presented with a trophy….. and typed on it was his name and “BEST EFFORT”. Everyone laughed… and I’m sure Wee Geordie was very proud of it.
    I miss him dearly… he added so much to our lives. He really did have “character”… Cairn character!!

    I now have 2 Westies and they also play “The Barbarians are Coming”.

  6. I too am a fellow Cairn enthusiest. I have a 2 1/2 year old named Cairigan. She's not much of a barker, thankfully, but she sure is a flirt with men. If I take her for a walk and we pass women she sort of says hello, but if we pass a man, well she turns on the charm as if to say "Hey here I am". We recently had her at an in-home kennel for a week while we were at a horse camp and the lady's grandchildren just loved her with all her tricks, especially when you say "Bang" and she plays dead. Oh yeah, she also thinks she's a horse and loves to eat hay out of the feeder with them. But her nemisis is our resident chipmonks, they drive her crazy. Funny thing though, we haven't seen them for a while. Anyway, she brings such joy to my life I can't imagine life without her.

  7. I have a little golden Cairn named Lucy. After having Airedales & Westies who were perfectly trained I thought I could train any dog – no problem. I always wanted a Cairn and assumed she would be no different. Big mistake! I got her when she was 5 months old and don't know if that had anything to do with it or not but I am now a total failure at dog training. Lucy pays very little attention to whatever I say and continues to do her own thing. She failed puppy class. Twice! She plays "The Barbarians are coming" – very unnerving as besides barking in the highest pitch I have ever heard that could shatter crystal she also paws furiously at the window making me wonder how much more the glass can take. She absolutely loves kids, people, dogs & horses but goes absolutely ballistic if she sees a cat. She tries to climb all over everyone she meets with pure doggy delight and assumes they are as excited to see her as she is to see them. After two years I have almost managed to teach her not to jump up on everyone but we are still working on that. I have even tried the training methods of two of the professional dog trainers on TV. Have never seen them use Cairns in their training though. Wonder why?? She has me totally frustrated one minute and laughing at her antics the next. One night I came home late and very tired and went right to bed (she has a doggy door so lets herself out when necessary) turning the TV on thinking I would watch it for a few minutes to wind down. The next thing I know there is a hair-raising bark that wakes me up from a deep sleep. The TV is blaring (I must have fallen asleep immediately as I never even turned the volume down) it's 3 a.m. and standing beside the bed is one very miffed Cairn. I turned the TV off and she turned around and immediately marched back to bed. I guess she had had enough noise for one night and decided it was time to do something about it. There is NEVER a dull moment with a Cairn!

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