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  The Truth About The Papillon

June 10, 2002



Stanley the Papillon is an original piece of work by Canadian cartoonist Ron Leishman.

Order a Papillon t-shirt with Stanley in full color on the back. Check it out.

Everyone knows that Marie Antoinette was beheaded. Not many know that she actually walked to the guillotine clutching her small dog under her arm.

Marie's leadership style was certainly problematic. However, her choice in dogs was excellent, a small spaniel that had been brought to the French court from Spain on the back of pack mules. This was not a breed that would have considered walking over the Pyrenees under its own power. It was a perfect match for life with the aristocracy though. In Marie's case, her days of pet ownership were over. However, her pup was spared and cared for in a building in Paris still called the Papillon House.

When I read this story, it stimulated an unprecedented (and fleeting) interest in history. In a quick scan of literature about Papillons, I read that Marie's small spaniel descended from a very old breed that started showing up in church frescos and paintings as far back as the 13th century. On a subsequent trip to Europe, I noticed a number of 16th century paintings that included small droop eared dogs, clearly ancestors of the Papillon, curled up on the laps and at the feet of aristocratic women. I also recognized the artists' license in these paintings since even the ancestor of the Papillon would never lie on a cold castle floor.

History suggests that it took another hundred years for the breed to solidify its power in the royal family. However, in the 17th century, Louis XIV created a political officer responsible for the care and breeding of the royal pups. It was undoubtedly at this crossroads that the Papillon recognized its political pull and began to run every aspect of their households, a characteristic that is strongly reflected in the modern breed.

Toward the end of the 19th century, some dog breeder got a bee up her bonnet and bred of a version of the spaniels whose ears stood up. The early name for the breed, the Toy Continental Spaniel, was dropped, and this dog was tagged a Papillon based on the impressively large erect ears that resembled the wings of a butterfly edged with long fringe. Anyone who gets a Papillon should be prepared for every passer-by who sees the breed for the first time to shriek, "Get a load of those ears!"

The droop eared version of the breed came to be called the Phalene. Both types are still bred today and can show up in the same litter although the Papillon is much more common. If public commotions make you uncomfortable, it might be worth a search for a Phalene. However, do not be misled by the doe-eyed Phalene who, like the Papillon, has an ego the size of a French castle.



The modern Papillon has a beautiful coat, short on the head but profuse around the neck, chest, and pantaloons. But it is the fringe on the ears that is of greatest interest to the Papillon breeder. Breeders call it (I kid you not), the "precious fringe." At its best, it resembles heavy drapery. The precious fringe is never trimmed, and it is combed very carefully to avoid breakage. Recently, one Papillon owner had to be sedated when she returned from vacation and found that her house sitter had trimmed her champion's ear fringe.

The American Kennel Club classifies the Papillon as a toy breed. At first glance, the Papillon appears quite dainty. To be of show quality, the Papillon must be twelve inches or under. However, many owners are fond of saying that their dogs are big dogs in small dog bodies. There are three possible reasons for this.

First, the Papillon is very capable of handling a good five-mile walk. The reality is they will resist such an outing if the grass is dampish or if there are two clouds in the sky that might lead to rain, but they are very hearty when the conditions match their idea of perfection.

Or perhaps they seem to be larger dogs because they are not prone to small dog quaking when confronted with a new situation. In fact, Papillons generally believe that any new event has been put on for their benefit, and they do their best to be an attentive host or hostess.

The third aspect of the Papillon that has lead to the big dog assertion is that this breed is surprisingly athletic. Papillons did their best to hide this for centuries by maintaining a focus on artistry of lap sitting. When movement was called for, they made it clear that they preferred carriages and porters to uncouth running and jumping. However, in recent years, the truth has been revealed, as the Papillon has become a small dog star in the sport of agility.

If you have not yet seen the sport of agility, it consists of an obstacle course with tunnels, jumps, A-frames, and narrow bridges that a dog completes at top speed aided only by verbal commands from the handler. Agility requires the dog to spring, scramble, weave, and turn on a dime. The Papillon has never encouraged the use of these verbs in planning their day. However, the reality is, if kindly trained, this breed is an agility natural. Papillons compete at both national and international trials.

In general, Papillons take their main assignment, to win the companion and lap dog sweepstakes, very seriously. This does not mean that they are cloying. Papillons are capable of napping quietly in a patch of sun (on top of several pillows) for hours. However, when called upon to provide company, they always rise to the occasion with serious chest draping, face kissing, and snuggling.


It is important to note one serious note in the American Kennel Club's breed description. This premier document about purebreds states that the Papillon is a ratter. The author writes, "Too small to kill a rat outright, they will worry it until exhausted, then dispatch it quickly." There is NO truth in this statement. Papillons are horrified by rats. A Papillon confronted by any rodent would be much more likely to call for the D-Con than to try anything foolish and annoy the beast.

The Papillon is not without issues. Each year, as the announcer for the Westminster dog show introduces each dog into the ring, he carefully captures the personality of that breed with just a few sentences. In the case of the Papillon, the description is less than subtle.

"The Papillion is a very old breed," he intones. "They are bright, interactive dogs. However, without the proper handling," he cautions, "they will live up to the nickname the 'Little Tyrant'."

While dog owners with other breeds sometimes take offense at the quick profile of their breed, Papillon owners have never questioned this description. The truth is that the Papillon is programmed to run every household, and he will take it to the extreme without an owner who establishes a reason for joint leadership. Let me give you an example.

My eight-year-old male Papillon is a continental diner. When the other dogs eat at five, he rarely even comes into the kitchen. Several hours later, when he apparently gets hungry, he meanders into the kitchen and barks until someone serves his dinner.

I can hear you hard-core trainers sniffing. I was one of you before this dog trained me. Let me tell you, he can go for days without eating if forced to confront his food at an unseemly hour.

What else would you expect from a breed that hung out with Marie Antoinette?



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