Dog or Butterfly?

A Breed Profile by Liz Palika

I was walking down the street the other day when an elderly gentleman approached me. “What kind of a dog is that?” he asked, staring intently at the dog on the end of my leash. “Chocho is a Papillon”, I replied, waiting for what always followed. “A pappy-what?”

Papillon (pronounced PAPPY yawn) owners quickly get used to the attention these little dogs attract. At dog shows I am approached by people who ask if my dog is a longhaired Chihuahua, a Chihuahua mix or a short-coated Pomeranian. Although some people might say there is a slight resemblance to either breed, the American Kennel Club breed standard describes the Papillon is “a small, friendly, elegant toy dog of fine-boned structure; light dainty and of lively action; distinguished from other breeds by its beautiful butterfly-like ears.”

Most Papillons are between 8 and 11 inches tall at the shoulder, and are predominately white with patches of color. Their coloring ranges from black to brown to yellow, and must surround the eyes and cover the ears. Most Papillons have patches of color on the body, but some are entirely white except for the color on the head.

A Papillon coat is silky and of medium length, and slightly longer around the ruff and chest. Many breeders call the Papillon coat “wash and wear” because it does not require extensive grooming and does not mat or tangle. It does, however, require regular combing. The dogs carry their plumed tails over their backs.

But the Papillon’s trademark is its ears. Moving constantly to reflect the dog’s thoughts and emotions, the ears stand erect, are set high on the head and are draped in long fringes, thus creating the image of butterfly wings. The Papillon is a striking little dog with many good qualities, but the breed’s personality is what attracts many people.


The Papillon is one of the oldest breeds of dogs, with a recorded history in Europe going back nearly 700 years. The Papillon was originally called the epagneul nain, or dwarf spaniel, and sported spaniel-type drop ears. The dog was later known as the Continental Toy Spaniel (or sometimes just toy spaniel), and this tiny breed is recognizable in 13th through 15th century Italian frescoes. It was featured in many paintings of the Renaissance period; in fact, much of the breed’s development is know because of its depiction in paintings.

Giotto di Bondone (1276-1337) painted a recognizable dwarf spaniel in one of his frescoes in a church of Assisi, and the great master Titian (1477-1576) also was know to paint the tiny dogs. Dwarf spaniels are included in the works of many other old masters, including Rubens, Watteau, Fragonard and Boucher.

It was during the Renaissance that dogs began to be kept solely for the companionship they provided. Of course, few people could afford to keep a dog that didn’t earn its keep; a companion dog was a luxury usually limited to the upper classes.

King Louis XIV is probably the most famous owner of the dwarf spaniel, mainly because they were included in most of his family portraits. The portrait “Louis XIV and His Heir”, painted by Nicolas de Largilliere (1656-1746), included all of Louis’ dwarf spaniels.

Madame Pompadour and Marie Antoinette also owned dwarf spaniels. According to legend, Marie Antoinette even took one of the little dogs to the guillotine with her and just before she was beheaded handed it to her executioner. If poor Marie cared much about her dogs, though, I doubt she would have taken one with her to such an appointment.

In fact, it was during Marie Antoinette’s time – the French Revolution – that the dwarf spaniel’s popularity began to wane primarily because it had been so popular with royalty. But the breed survived, and its popularity rose again in France, Belgium and England in the late 1800s and early 1900s.


It is unknown where the name Papillon first appeared in print, but in the late 1800s it became acceptable to refer to the erect-eared dog as a Papillon (French for “butterfly”) because it resembled the wings of a butterfly, and the facial markings, particularly the blaze, resembled the insect’s body. The drop-eared type was called a phalene, or “night moth”.

The Papillon Club was formed in England in 1924. At that time, both the erect-eared and drop-eared breeds were seen, but both were grouped under the name Papillon. The erect-eared carriage eventually became more popular.

The first known Papillons in America were imported by Mrs. William Storr Wells of Massachusetts in 1907. A year later she gave these two dogs to Mrs. de Forest Danielson who imported several more Papillons. She later bred the dog that was to become the first American champion Papillon. The breed was recognized by the AKC in 1915.


Most breeders would prefer to keep the Papillon’s appeal a secret. No breed profits from popularity; indiscriminate breeders taking advantage of popular demand often turn out unhealthy dogs of poor temperament.

The Papillon is classified as a toy dog. Its small size makes it a wonderful city dog, and most will readily take to regular walks on city streets. Not all Papillons make good apartment dogs, however. The dogs have a strong instinct to protect their property, and many will bark excessively at nearby noises – not making a distinction between casual noises and those worthy of a real alarm. Although they are easily trained, their barking is often difficult to control.

The breed reveals its spaniel heritage when out of the city. It’s a rare Papillon that doesn’t relish a romp in a field, investigating scents and flushing birds. Many Papillons have retained their hunting instinct and will readily flush a mouse or lizard from its cover.


The Papillon is extremely hardy, but puppies should be closely supervised, because a tumble down a staircase or a jump from a sofa might result in a broken leg. By the time the dog is an adult, though, it is surprisingly resilient.

No matter how resilient, though, Papillons should always be supervised when playing with larger dogs – even friendly ones – because a larger dog can inadvertently hurt or kill a dog the size of a Papillon. Even an aggressive self-defense by such a small dog is no match for the response of a large dog.

The Papillon is a healthy breed, living as long as 16 years, but it does have its share of problems. As with many small dogs, some Papillons have a problem with the patella, or kneecap, on the hind legs. Normally, the patella is attached to ligaments and rides in a groove, but sometimes the patella wobbles in the groove and catches, causing the dog to hop or skip on that hind leg until it resets. Occasionally the patella will completely pop out of the groove, causing the dog great pain. A veterinarian can sometimes correct the disorder surgically, but most of the time a dog with a tricky patella learns to live with it, hopping and skipping through life. Dogs with patella problems should not be bred.

A condition common to many toy breeds that is sometimes seen in Papillons is called a fontanel: an opening in the top of the skull similar to a human baby’s “soft spot”. If the opening is less than one-quarter inch wide when the puppy is young, it will probably close with time. If the opening is larger during puppy-hood or if you can feel such an opening on the adult dog, it probably won’t close naturally. In this case, the dog’s head should be protected as much as possible – a blow to that spot could kill the dog. With proper care, a dog with a fontanel can live a full life, but again, these dogs should not be bred.

Papillons can also have a difficult time while under anesthesia. There is always a risk involved when using anesthesia – for a human patient or a canine one.


The Papillon is not a dog to be chosen simply because you like its looks, no matter how appealing the dog might be. And, although its “wash and wear” coat might be a selling point for some people, that should not be the reason you choose this particular breed. When you decide on a Papillon, you should remember that it was bred to be a companion dog – a dog that would rather be with you than anywhere else in the world.

My Papillon, Chocho, is a good example of a companion dog. He sits by my side on the couch when I watch the nightly news, he watches intently when I wash dishes and he waits outside the shower stall when I’m taking a shower. He also waits patiently by my feet when I work on the computer. If I appear unoccupied, he will bring me a toy to throw for him.

We work in obedience, we go on pet-assisted therapy visits and he rides in the car when I go shopping. A companion dog is exactly that: a companion. A companion dog that is left alone for long hours is an unhappy dog – a dog that will develop behavior problems (barking, digging, chewing, sometimes even self-mutilation) out of loneliness and frustration. If you dislike a canine shadow, a Papillon is not for you.

Papillons are known to form lasting attachments to other pets in the household, however, and this can be a means of relieving loneliness when family members are gone. For example, Chocho arrived at my house at 8 weeks of age and was shortly joined by a rescued kitten we named Tigger. The puppy and kitten chased each other around the house, wrestled, slept and grew up together. Now that both of them are 8 years old, they are still the best of friends, even though the cat ended up twice the size of the dog. When I come home on a cold winter evening, it’s not unusual to find Chocho and Tigger cuddled up together on the couch. Other Papillon owners have said that their dogs have befriended rabbits, birds, ferrets and, in one case, a pet rat.

Just because the Papillon is a companion dog doesn’t mean it is a couch potato, however. It’s an active, intelligent little dog, and if you don’t provide some mental stimulation, the Papillon will find it’s own. Because of this attitude and its strong desire to please its human companion, the Papillon is an excellent dog to do things with.

The Papillon is the most popular toy breed in obedience, and it’s not unusual to hear of a Papillon winning High Scoring Dog in Trial awards. Papillons can be involved in other sports, too. Papillons are active in agility, which involves a combination of a jumping course, a playground and an obstacle course. Naturally, the tiny dogs cannot jump high, but with the jumps set low, they seem to fly over many of the obstacles. Many Papillons are also natural retrievers and will retrieve balls, toys and miniature 4-inch Frisbees. Papillons have been taught to pull tiny carts, often with another Papillon riding inside.

Papillons are excellent therapy dogs to take to hospitals, nursing and convalescent homes. Chocho visits a local Alzheimer’s care facility on a regular basis with a group of larger dogs and is a favorite with many of the residents. He is small enough to be set on a lap and cuddled – a stature that makes him more approachable for residents who tend to be apprehensive about bigger dogs. Conversely, Chocho sometimes needs protection from the many hands that can be unintentionally rough.

One of the drawbacks to doing things with Papillons is that many of these tiny dogs don’t realize that with their size comes limitations. Some will attempt to go over jumps that are much too high or want to pull a wagon that is much too heavy. Sometimes their desire to please is just too strong. Nevertheless, if you like dog activities and you enjoy a dog’s companionship, a Papillon might be the dog for you.


If you like to play rough-and-tumble games with your dog, don’t get a Papillon. If you are looking for a guard dog, don’t get a Papillon. If you want to do protection training, Shutzhund training or field training, don’t get a Papillon. If you want a backyard dog, don’t get a Papillon. If you want to make money breeding dogs, don’t get a Papillon.

These types of dog owners usually steer clear of toy breeds, but unfortunately, the desires of another group of potential owners have clashed with the better judgment of reputable breeders, causing hard feelings. But breeders remain firm.

Although many parents will protest angrily, “My children are good with pets”, it is too risky to subject the dogs to the unpredictable behavior of children – Papillons can be hurt or killed by rough play. A child’s undeveloped motor skills can create havoc: If a child slips and falls, the dog can be crushed while trying to get out of the way.

Because most children also go through stages where they will test rules the parents have established – getting rough with the dog precisely because they know they are not supposed to – many small dogs become nippy. If it has been hurt or frightened enough by you children, the dog will instinctively bite in self-defense.


Buy your Papillon from a breeder who offers to show you relatives of your prospective puppy. This way, you can be assured of the dog’s future health, soundness and temperament. A reputable breeder will also ask questions: Why do you want a Papillon? Where will it live? Do you have a fenced yard? What is the family like? Don’t be offended by the questions, however. The breeder just wants to make sure her puppy is going to the best home possible and that you are willing to make a lifetime commitment to the pup.

When looking for a Papillon, don’t let one specific quality over-ride what should be a well-balanced choice. For example, a red-and-white male with lots of color and an oh-so-cute personality might be an unsuitable match in other ways. Instead, be prepared to tell the breeder about your personality and what you would like to do with the pup. You need to consider whether you want a dog that will perform well for obedience and agility, or a dog that will easily adapt to being a quiet house pet, preferring long walks to competition. The breeder can then choose a puppy whose personality and temperament are best suited to your needs. Color and the puppy’s sex are much less important.

You can contact the Papillon Club of America for a copy of the club’s breeder referral list. But because finding a Papillon can be a time-consuming project, the first order of business is patience. Don’t be in a hurry. Papillons usually have two or three puppies per litter, but it’s not unusual to have only one puppy. Many breeders maintain waiting lists of prospective owners, and a wait of a year or more in not uncommon.

It is unusual to find a Papillon at a shelter or humane society, but it has happened occasionally. If your heart is not set on a puppy, you might try contacting the Papillon Club of America rescue committee.

If you choose your Papillon puppy with care, your patience will be rewarded. This is a long-lived breed, and the dog you choose will be with you for 14 to 16 wonderful years. This breed has been a cherished and pampered pet throughout its long and colorful history, and it has given much in return.