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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; the first thing you're liable to notice are their stunning good looks and elegant demeanor. And just as Ms. Turlington carries degrees in Comparative Religion and Eastern Philosophy, the papillon's head houses a keen mind, consistently ranking her among the smartest dog breeds in the world.
The most striking feature on the papillon is her ears. Naturally large in size and standing upright, they are covered in long, feathered hair that frames her face in big fans that look like butterfly wings. A less-common version is born with pendant ears (also called "drop 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 colors, usually including white with some combination of fawn, chocolate, or black.
Ideal companion dogs, papillons are more than happy to spend time as a lapdog 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, like a little time fetching a small toy across the room.
Papillons get along well with cats and other dogs 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 is 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 competitions.
Whatever activity you choose, it will be important to give your little butterfly dog something to do on a regular basis. Their active minds can get bored if they're not exercised daily—and that boredom can result in an overly vocal dog or one who will begin eschewing his potty training. Giving her interactive toys and puzzle feeders can help keep her from getting bored, too!
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, she'll love to go out for a romp whenever you let her. True to her spaniel instincts, she'll love giving any local squirrels or birds a stern talking to if they wander into her territory.
While papillons can make excellent family dogs, great care should be taken around very small children. Papillons are hardier than they look, but they are still very small-boned dogs and can easily be hurt by children playing too rough. As with any dog breed, always supervise puppy playtime and teach any small kiddo how to properly interact with pets.
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. They should also be watched carefully when around much larger animals, as papillons will not hesitate to play with dogs three times their size as if they were equals—and they might accidentally be stepped on!
Despite all that long, flowing hair, papillons are surprisingly low-maintenance when it comes to grooming. She doesn't shed much, so brushing her once or twice a week (paying special attention to her hind legs and undercarriage to prevent matting) is about all she'll require. Bathe her every three months or so, as needed. You'll want to keep an eye on her nail length, especially her dewclaws, as they can curl around and pierce her leg. Keep them trimmed short, and use this time to clean her ears, too.
Special attention needs to be paid to her pearly whites, because toy breeds can be highly susceptible to dental problems such as periodontal disease. The Papillon Club of America (PCA) recommends brushing your papillon's teeth at least twice a week, though daily brushing is ideal.
As with all dogs, papillons respond best to positive reinforcement training, so bring lots of treats, head pats, and "good girl!" exclamations to each session. She's so smart that she'll quickly pick up new cues and tricks.
Much like the Energizer Bunny, these little dogs just keep going and going. Papillons have a long life, typically living to 15 years of age (or more), and are healthy pups. But certain health issues can be a concern; the Canine Health Information Center recommends screening your papillon for patellar luxation and to have a veterinarian conduct an eye examination.
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 her from herself. We can't stress this enough: teensy dog, GIANT spirit—she could easily hurt herself by being too confident about a big jump.
One of the oldest breeds of toy spaniels, the papillon started appearing in works of art around the 1500s, according to the PCA. 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 papillons 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 (or so the story goes).
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, according to the PCA. The massive popularity of this new, raised-ear dog resulted in the butterfly-inspired 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 1915. The papillon won its first Best in Show at Westminster in 1999, and took its first title at Crufts in 2019.
- 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.