Papillon – Peachy Papillons

Breed facts

He may be small but the Papillon is highly intelligent, makes a great watchdog and can even outrun a Border Collie on the agility field! Here David Cavill explains more about this exciting toy dog breed.


Many years ago a friend of mine decided she wanted a dog. After a great deal of thought, she settled on a Papillon. I do not think I influenced her but the Papillon is a breed I have always found attractive, so I was delighted when she asked me to accompany her to the breeder I had suggested to help her select a suitable bitch. Just as we were leaving, the door burst open and a stunning red and white Papillon puppy tore into the room, leapt on the armchair and flew around on the top of the three-piecesuite before jumping off and skidding to an emergency stop on my lap! I offered to buy him there and then (something I have done neither before nor since). But he was not for sale and I can understand why, as he soon became a champion. So, I’m a little partial to the Papillon it seems. In my book, All about the Spitz Breeds, I thought I wrote the breed features in a very fair, balanced way, but many readers told me that there was no doubt about those I particularly liked. As Disraeli observed, ‘If you write from the heart you write to the heart’ and I suspect this article might show signs of bias because, for me, the Papillon is the most attractive of all the toy dogs, rivalling the small utility dogs for charm and cleverness.

Breed history
The Papillon (pronounced ‘pap-ee-on’) is one of the oldest of the toy breeds and is said to have been brought to Europe by early explorers from Mexico. This story is probably a myth as the Papillon is much more likely to have been developed (as was the Cavalier King Charles) from the ubiquitous Toy Spaniel – a breed favourite throughout Europe in all levels of society. In any event, the Papillon emerged in his present form in France, having been bred primarily for companionship. But do not let this fool you; the Papillon is a highly intelligent dog which can make a wonderful watchdog and family companion. The breed’s history can be clearly traced through 13th century works of art, with the earliest toy Spaniels most resembling the Papillon, seen in Italian paintings, notably those of Titian. You can see one curled up on the couch alongside the Venus of Urbino and, in a painting after Largillierre in the Wallace Collection in London, a Papillon is featured in a family portrait of Louis XIV. Papillons can be found in royal and merchant-class family paintings around Europe. Even in those days the breed – known then as the ‘toy’ Spaniel – was popular in England, France and Belgium (which all lay claim to be the country of origin). The Papillon is still officially referred to as the ‘Epagneul Nain Continental’ (ENC) in non- English-speaking countries and the name ‘Squirrel Spaniel’ is also used, most likely referring to an earlier standard, in which the tail set is described as ‘curling over the back as a squirrel’.

The Papillon has distinctive, large ears which are wellfringed, with coloured (never white) silky hair. The colour covers both eyes and the front and back of the ears to give the ideal ‘butterfly’ look and this is enhanced if, as is preferred, there is a white blaze and noseband on the face. Tricolours should be black and white, with tan spots over the eyes, inside the ears and under the tail. As puppies they begin to grow more hair on and in their ears and on and around their tail and feet. The Papillon coat is abundant, long, and silky with no undercoat. The ears are well-fringed with the inside covered with silken hair of medium length. The tail is long, well-fringed, set on high and arched over back with fringes falling to either side to form a plume. The head is slightly rounded between the ears, and the muzzle is fine, tapering, and narrower than the skull, with an abrupt stop. As mentioned previously, there are two ear variations of this breed: the completely upright ears of the more common Papillon and the dropped Spaniel-like ears of the Phalène. The Kennel Club (and the American Kennel Club) consider the Phalène and the Papillon the same breed, so both varieties are shown in the same class. Countries whose breed clubs follow the Federation Cynologique International (FCI) standard considers Papillons and Phalènes as two separate breeds.

Temperament and home life
One breeder told me that “Papillons have a great sense of fun and give you unfailing love. Their playfulness, beauty, striking intelligence and remarkably lowmaintenance costs make them delightful pets. Choosing them, after many years of breeding Old English Sheepdogs and German Short-haired Pointers, is a decision I have never regretted. They really are allsinging, all-dancing little butterflies.” The Papillon may look like a dainty toy breed but I can assure you that there is a big dog inside, and that they have no concept of their size in relation to other dogs! The breed is also very tough and hardy, and perfectly capable of handling a fivemile walk. Of course, given the chance, they love to be spoilt and become lazy but, given a sensible upbringing, they will be lively and always eager to investigate new sounds, smells and pastures. The Papillon is surprisingly athletic, highly energetic and intelligent. They are quick to learn and willing; so this makes the breed very easy to train and most do not need any encouragement to apply their energy to athletic activities. The Papillon makes a good town dog – and it is true that they can live comfortably in a flat, but it’s important to remember that they do have a strong instinct to protect their property, and many will bark excessively at nearby noises, not making the distinction between casual noises and those worthy of a real alarm. Play will take care of a lot of the breed’s exercise needs; however, as with all breeds, play is not enough and the Papillon will need to get out regularly, to walk, run and enjoy a good romp in a safe open area off lead.

Agility star!
In recent years, the Papillon has become a small dog star in both agility and heelwork to music. They are so naturally agile and compete in both national and international trials. Because many Papillons have intense drive and natural speed, their ability to turn tiny, tight circles gives them the edge over larger dogs, and some Papillons are capable of beating Border Collies on some courses! At the same time, and despite their diminutive size, they make wonderful companions and excellent family dogs, although continual stimulation for their active minds and bodies is needed because, unlike many toy breeds, the Papillon is not content to sit and snooze!

Breed health
The Papillon is a healthy chap. Like many small breeds, they occasionally have a slipping patella but this is seldom a problem. Von Willebrand’s disease (a blood clotting defect) has been reported as has progressive retinal atrophy (bilateral degeneration of the retina), mitral valve disease (a cardiac disease) and a condition which affects some toy breeds called ‘reverse sneezing’. This curious inhaled ‘sneeze’ may be distressing to the dog and his owner but is not thought to be harmful. All this said, the incidences of these conditions in the Papillon is very low and should not put you off buying a puppy from any reputable source.

5 Papillon facts

Butterfly ears – The Papillon’s ears are an essential element of the breed. They resemble a butterfly when they are alert – hence the breed name ‘Papillon’, which simply means ‘butterfly’ in French. There is also a variety of the breed which is identical, except that it has drop ears. This is called the Phalène meaning ‘night moth’ and, although less popular than the prickeared dog (although there has been a resurgence of interest recently), we know they were in fact the original type.

Colouring – Papillons come in any colour (other than liver) with most being black or red and white. The most usual colour is tricolour (black and white with tan spots over the eyes and one on the cheek).

Size – The accepted standard size varies slightly among different organisations’ breed standards but generally ranges from 8-11ins (20-28cm) at the withers. Papillons usually weigh between 6-10lbs (3-5kg).

Grooming – Despite the coat, the Papillon is easy to care for and requires minimal grooming. The coat sheds, usually twice a year, and, although soft and silky, it does not grow so long to tangle. Daily combing and brushing is still important though and quite straightforward. The breed is almost always pleasantly clean and odourless but the occasional bath may be necessary if the dog becomes muddy. The coat is very suitable for dry shampoos too. The nails become long and need to be clipped when necessary. The teeth need regular cleaning as they tend to accumulate tartar.

Age – the lifespan for the Papillon is 12-16 years, but some live beyond this.

Living with a Papillon
Back in 1949, a lady called Madame Palthis, wrote an impression of the Papillon in the Belgian Review. Janet Cookson of the Glasllwch Papillons translated it as follows and it is a good, if a little sentimental, summary: ‘The Papillon is a child which remains a child all his life, who loves caresses and returns them and plays about even when old. He is a most sensitive dog; if you scold him he will gaze at you with eyes full of tears, so much so that one is quite disarmed. He is neither grumpy nor nasty. ‘If you get ready to go out he is an intelligent dog who understands perfectly from a nod of head whether or not you intend to take him for a walk or leave him at home to guard the house. Straight away, he will go to the cushion or sofa where he usually lies, waiting patiently, and when you return he will give you a thousand kisses without rancour. ‘He eats little, but very cleanly, is fairly fussy over food and bad smells put him off. His long coat is silky and abundant and easy to look after. He loves being groomed; brush and comb and even perfume please him greatly. ‘He loves to be flattered and will give you a thousand kisses if you tell him he is gorgeous. One little fault, which is a quality, is that he is jealous and does not like people to come near the person he has adopted. ‘The bitch is a wonderful mother, adoring her pups and, contrary to other mothers, she is happy and proud. When someone comes to visit her babies she kisses you. A good guard, he is a watchdog who barks at the slightest noise.’

Getting a pup
There were 850 Papillon puppies registered in 2006 so, although there are plenty about, they are not popular in the sense that Cavaliers or Yorkshire Terriers are. If you are interested in getting a puppy, you may have to book him from a breeder and wait a few months before he becomes available. You can get more information from the books listed and many websites including W and the Kennel Club, which has 12 registered accredited breeders – visit

About the author Show judge, author, writer, broadcaster and founder of the Animal Care College, David Cavill is an advisor to manufacturers, breeders, retailers, conference and exhibition organisers and show managements. With his wife, Angela, he owns one of the UK’s most successful breeding prefixes for Finnish Spitz.