The Papillon

Papillon: The bright butterfly dog from the courts of Europe


Bright and perky, with elegant ears and a royal attitude, the Papillon is a hardy little dog that brightens the darkest day. Bred to be a companion, this toy dog fills that role to perfection, for it thrives on human company and delights in pleasing its owners. Developed from the Continental Toy Spaniel, the Papillon takes its name from the French word for "butterfly" for the distinctive head markings that resemble that magnificent creature. The Phalene, a separate variety of the breed with drop ears, takes its name from the butterfly's cousin, the moth, another winged beauty that folds its wings when at rest. Phalenes and Papillons can be born in the same litter, but Phalenes are not as popular as their brethren with the upright ears.

The Papillon is related to several toy spaniels, and it is difficult to ascertain when it became a separate breed. The dog is one of several developed during the height of royal reign in Europe as a lap dog for the ladies of the court, for the royal families were the only ones who could afford to buy and breed dogs solely as companions. European artists as far back as the 15th Century included Papillons in their paintings of kings and princes. The dogs figure in the lore of royal families. According to Carolyn and David Roe in their book "The Complete Papillon" King Henri of France suspended small, open baskets around his neck, filled them with Papillons, and appeared in council. One of these tiny dogs warned him of the treachery of the monk Jacques Clement, but the king did not listen. When the dog refused to cease barking at the monk, the king confined her to another room. The monk stabbed the king. Thanks to the din raised by the dogs, the monk was caught, but the king died.

Of the two types of Papillon, the drop-eared variety probably preceded the erect-eared dogs as it more closely resembles the other toy spaniel breeds.

Physical appearance

The Papillon and the Phalene have typical spaniel personalities: bright, cheerful, and accommodating. They are intelligent dogs, quick to learn, and find great joy in human company. The breed standard describes it as "a small, friendly, elegant toy dog of fine-boned structure; light dainty, and of lively action."

Small it is. Height at the withers is eight-to-11 inches, and dogs over 12 inches are disqualified from the show ring. The standard does not specify weight, but most Papillons weigh between four and seven pounds. The dog's body is longer than it is high, and its structure is fine-boned.

The Papillon's head and tail are its most distinctive features. The head is slightly rounded between the beautiful ears, and the muzzle is thinner than the head and tapers to the nose. The erect ears fan out from the skull like butterfly wings, their long fringes adding to the elegance, and the bright eyes and button nose complete the picture.

The more spaniel-like dropped ears of the Phalene give this dog a more wistful appearance.

Arching over the dog's back in a luxurious plume, the Papillon's tail is a perfect counterpoint for the lovely ears.

The breed's long legs give it a characteristic quick and easy gait that is graceful and exudes confidence and style. Most Papillons are white with colored markings. Color on the head must encircle both eyes and the ears. A solid color face is acceptable, but a white blaze that enhances the butterfly appearance is preferred. Solid white and solid color dogs are disqualified from the show ring.

The Papillon as pet

Carol Morris of Cincinnati, Oh is a Papillon breeder. She likes the little dogs for their lively, active personality.

"Nobody told them they're a small dog, and it wouldn't have mattered if they did," she said.

This big dog in a little package thinks its job is to guard its family's possessions, and if the family lives in an apartment, the dog may bark intensely at each and every sound. That, and the tendency to be difficult to housetrain are the major drawbacks to the breed. The breed also can be sensitive to anesthesia and individual dogs may need their teeth cleaned frequently.

The Papillon has a long, silky top coat with no undercoat. The hair is straight; the chest, ears, backs of the forelegs, and the hind legs above the hocks are fringed. However, as fine as this hair is, it needs little grooming.

Physically healthy, the Papillon is long-lived. Its major health problems include patellar luxation (loose kneecaps), some eye problems, and occasionally a soft spot or fontanel on the skull. Dogs that have these problems should not be bred.

Papillons are not suitable for families with small children and many breeders refuse to sell puppies to those with children under six years. Although the adults are quite hardy, the puppies are fragile and can be seriously injured by rough and tumble play or by frolicking children. They are, however, appropriate for families with older children and as companions for elderly people. They are wonderful therapy dogs, for they enjoy nothing more than lavishing affection on their people. Unlike many breeds of dogs, the Papillon is jealously guarded by its breed club. Those who are looking for a puppy may be placed on a waiting list; litters are small, usually two or three pups, and breeders tend to be very picky about who gets their treasures. They often keep the pups until 14 or 16 weeks of age.

This breed can be an excellent choice for someone interested in obedience work, for it is among the most able of the toy breeds in competition. But most of all the Papillon is a companion, a job for which it was originally bred and remains aptly suited.

[More on finding a dog]

Norma Bennett Woolf

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