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The Papillon

The Phalène (left) and the Papillon (right) ― two variations of the same breed.
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The Papillon is the kind of breed where, even if you don’t know the name of it, you’d recognize it anywhere. It’s in all the classic paintings of nobility and royalty, delicately perched on a pillow beside their human, or held in their arms. The Papillon seems docile and sweet, like the light little lapdog that it is. But we all know how there’s more to a dog than meets the eye, especially when it comes to the pint-sized ones.

Favorites of European nobility

Once called the Dwarf Spaniel, or the Continental Toy Spaniel, the Papillon is today a well-known breed. It’s one of the oldest spaniel breeds, proven by how often it shows up in paintings from as far back as the 16th century. At the very least, our modern Papillon descends directly from these little spaniels. The Papillon was originally bred to be something of an all-round dog, just as cuddly and social as it would be capable of killing rodents. Its delicate appearance and beautiful coat made it a favorite of royals and nobility back in the day. In other words, a lovely accessory for portraits and parties. That’s not to say the breed’s personality wasn’t just as popular; it’s hard not to love such an extroverted, playful dog. This breed has essentially had a few centuries to become the perfect companion dog.

Regardless of the reasons, the Papillon has stuck around ever since. While it’s not a popular dog today, per se, it’s certainly not rare. One dog in particular brought a lot of attention to the breed in 1999, when a Papillon won Best In Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Show. Not only that, but the dog went on to win the World Dog Show in Helsinki, Finland, as well as the Royal Invitational in Canada. Thanks to this, awareness of the breed went up. And while it’s still not super popular, there’s usually a waitlist among breeders. This is mostly because the Papillon tends to have smaller litters.

Appearance and size of the Papillon

For anyone who speaks French, the Papillon’s name is obvious; “papillon” is French for butterfly. In this case, it refers to the big, perky ears and their long locks. The Papillon’s coat is long and soft, and needs brushing to keep its untangled, smooth look. This breed is definitely on the smaller side, a toy breed that doesn’t grow bigger than 8″ to 11″, and doesn’t weigh more than 4-9 pounds. It’s light and delicate, but is one of the breeds that live the longest ― it’s not unusual for them to live well into their teens.

The Phalène (left) and the Papillon (right) ― two variations of the same breed.

The Phalène

While the Papillon is widely known, there is another variety, namely the Phalène. Just like the Papillon is named for its butterfly ears, the Phalène is named for how its drop-ears resemble the folded wings of a moth ― a creature called “phalène”, in French. The Phalène is often talked about as its own breed, even though it technically isn’t one, at least according to the American Kennel Association. Much like the long-haired German Shepherd, or the Smooth Collie, it’s simply a variation of a breed ― in this case, the Papillon. A Phalène and a Papillon can even be part of the same litter. Aside from the ears, the two varieties are almost identical, in terms of appearance.

Despite the Papillon today being the more popular breed, this wasn’t always the case. Back in late-medieval Europe, the nobility would keep Phalènes both for warmth, company, and rat-control. Just take a look at paintings and portraits from countries like Spain, Belgium, and France during this time period, and you’ll spot the little Phalène in plenty of them. In other words, it was a rather popular dog. It was only once the Papillon entered the scene in the 16th century that the Phalène started to be forgotten. In the 19th century, the Papillon’s popularity was so high that deliberate efforts had to be made to keep the Phalène from disappearing entirely. These days, the breed is recovered and thriving, while still less known than its perky-eared variety.

Temperament and personality

It seems that one thing most smaller dog breeds have in common, is that they just don’t know how small they are. A Papillon either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that it doesn’t even reach up to your knee. This dog will do things its own way, unless you assert otherwise. There’s even a protective streak, and this dog won’t hesitate to bark at something ― or someone ― it deems suspicious. In other words, don’t be fooled by the soft exterior. This dog may be loving and sociable, but it demands to be treated with respect.

The Papillon loves people, overall. They’re extroverted, will happily be the center of attention, and they tend to make newcomers feel welcome. If you get one of these dogs, however, you need to be firm and consistent with socializing and obedience training. The upside is that this is a highly intelligent breed, which means that they’re quick learners, ideal dogs for most kinds of training and tricks. They get along well with other pets, as long as they’re introduced early. That said, they do tend to boss around dogs bigger than themselves.

Things to consider

The Papillon is a wonderful breed, small and feisty, but very loving and social. If you’re prepared for the work that goes into training and entertaining them, as well as caring for their luscious coat, this might just be the dog for you. With a Papillon in your life, you’ll never be bored, and always have a companion by your side.

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