There are few dogs whose appearance says “I’m fancy” quite like the papillon. With their teensy-tiny size, silky soft coat, and distinctive, large ears that give the breed its name (papillon is French for butterfly), the papillon has been one of the favored dogs of royalty and artists for nearly 600 years.
The papillon is the Christy Turlington of the dog world. In both cases, the first thing you’re liable to notice are their stunning good looks and elegant demeanor. However, just as Ms. Turlington carries degrees in Comparative Religion and Eastern Philosophy, the papillon’s pretty head houses a keen mind, consistently ranking it among the 10 smartest breeds in the world.
The most striking feature on the papillon is their ears. Naturally large in size and standing upright, the papillon’s ears are covered in long, feathered hair that frames their faces in big fans that look like butterfly wings. A less common version is born with pendant ears and commonly referred to as phaléne (French for moth), but the dogs are otherwise identical, often come from the same litter, and are considered the same breed.
The papillon’s ears frame a small, intelligent face with large, dark-colored eyes. Their tiny bodies (8–11 inches tall, usually less than 10 pounds) are covered in a single coat of long fur that comes in a variety of paricolors, usually including white with some combination of fawn, chocolate, or black.
Ideal companion dogs, papillons are more than happy to spend time as a lap dog or couch potato alongside their human companions. They are spaniels with active little motors but, due to their exceedingly small size, most of their exercise needs can be met simply with some indoor play, or a little time fetching a small toy across the room.
Papillons get along well with other dogs and cats if they are socialized from an early age, and multi-dog homes are a great way to keep the papillon from developing separation anxiety if their human companions are out of the house for extended periods.
“Basic obedience training and basic socialization is one of the best things you can do,” says Michelle Beck, DVM, CCRT, CVA-Veterinarian, with the Backlund Animal Clinic in Omaha, Neb. “Kennel training is so important, especially with puppies. The kennel is not a place for punishment, it’s for security. So working with them if they don’t immediately go into the kennel, to see it as a safe spot. Building up that familiarity with the kennel so they don’t get upset when you walk away.”
Papillons are incredibly smart dogs and can learn basic commands and tricks quickly. Their keen minds coupled with their athletic desires also make them excellent choices for agility or rally coursework and obedience competitions. Whatever you choose, it will be important to give your little butterfly dog something to do on a regular basis, because their active minds can get bored if they're not exercised daily, and that can result in an overly vocal dog or one who will begin eschewing his potty training.
Compact, bright, and highly adaptable, the papillon is a great companion for just about any setting. They are gentle and friendly enough to be good companions for seniors, they are small enough to make apartment living a breeze, and they are smart and affable enough to get along with other animals.
If you happen to have a fenced back yard, they’ll love to go out for a romp whenever you let them. As spaniels, they’re natural hunters, so they’ll love giving any local squirrels or birds a stern talking to if they wander into the papillon’s territory.
While papillons can make excellent family dogs, great care should be taken around very small children. Papillons are tougher than they look, but they are still very small boned dogs and can easily be hurt by children playing too rough.
Similarly, papillons have no idea how small they are. This lack of self-awareness, coupled with their naturally daring nature, means care must be taken to keep them from jumping from places that are too high for them. They should also be watched carefully when around much larger animals, as papillons will not hesitate to engage with dogs three times their size as if they were equals.
Despite all that long, flowing hair, papillons are surprisingly low maintenance. Giving them a brushing once or twice a week, and paying special attention to their hind legs and undercarriage to prevent matting, is about all they’ll require. A bath can happen every three months or so, as needed. You’ll want to keep an eye on their claw length, especially their dewclaws, as they can curl around and pierce the papillon’s leg.
One common condition among papillons is paroxysmal respiration or pharyngeal gag reflex, commonly referred to as “reverse sneezing.” Not actually a sneeze, the condition is caused by a number of factors, ranging from adverse reactions to perfumes or strong odors, to pollen allergies, to overexertion. In all cases, reverse sneezing is nothing to worry about. “Reverse sneezing tends to scare people because it sounds so strange,” Beck says. “But it’s really a harmless condition.”
Once again, the biggest health concern for the average papillon is going to be the daily task of saving it from itself. We can’t stress this enough: teensy dog, GIANT spirit.
One of the oldest breeds of toy spaniels, the papillon started appearing in works of art around the 1500s. Rubens, Rembrandt, Goya, and Toulouse-Lautrec are just a few of the artists who have immortalized the tiny papillon on canvas.
Their small size and refined, elegant appearance made them a favorite of royalty, with perhaps the most famous example being Thisbe, the papillon owned by Marie Antoinette, who sat outside her cell while she awaited her fate and whom (or so the story goes), the doomed queen even carried in her arms to the guillotine.
For the first several hundred years of their existence, the breed—originally referred to as the epagneul nain Continental, or continental toy spaniel—featured drop ears almost exclusively. It wasn’t until the 19th century that pups with the raised ears began being more selectively bred, and the massive popularity of those dogs resulted in the name change (though the dog is still referred to as the epagneul nain Continental in most non-English speaking countries).
Papillons made their way to the United States in the late 19th century and were recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1935. The papillon won its first Best in Show at Westminster in 1999, and took its first title at Crufts in 2019.
- Henry II reportedly spent over 100,000 crowns on his papillons.
- Christina Aguilera has a papillon named Chewy. Her other papillon, Stinky, died in 2018.
- Adult film star Ron Jeremy is also a fan of the breed, owning two named Jenna and Tiffany. They can occasionally be seen as in the background in his films.