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13 Surprising Papillon Facts: History, Traits & More

Krysha Thayer

By Krysha Thayer


The Papillon is a quick-footed and quick-witted toy breed that is much loved by those who know about it but is not as popular a breed as many others. Why is that? Well, many people just don’t know about the breed, even though it’s been around since the 16th century and cemented its place in both history and art.

Still, this pup deserves a place in our homes and hearts as much as it does international dog shows. Keep reading to learn more about the Papillon with these 13 surprising facts about this less popular but no less important dog breed.

Divider-Dog bone- NewThe 13 Fascinating Papillon Facts

1. Mysterious History

While we know that Papillons have distinctly European ancestry stemming from the European Toy Spaniel, there isn’t much more known about the breed. They became extremely popular during the Renaissance as companions for women, especially among nobility. However, the origins of the first pups and how this breed was created are unknown. Given how far back the breed dates, that’s not unexpected. It’s assumed that existing toy breeds were mixed with spaniels to create the signature look.

Image Credit: SergVG, Pixabay

2. Long and Storied Past

Much like today, the nobility of the Renaissance was excited over miniaturized versions of the most beautiful full-sized dogs. This led to the breeding of toy and mini versions, like the “Pap” or Papillon. Papillon means “butterfly” in French, and these dogs have butterfly-like ears that give them a signature look. They’ve been featured in paintings, appeared throughout history by the side of prominent figures, and was one of the earliest breeds to be recognized by the American Kennel Club.

3. Great Models for Classical Painters

Papillons, being a favored pet of many aristocrats and royal families, naturally found their way into important portraits. Classical painters found them quite interesting, and you’ll find them prominently featured in many famous works by Rubens, Goya, and even Rembrandt. The Papillon Club of America has compiled a list of classical paintings that feature their favorite pup. You may be surprised to see so many, dating as far back as 1534 with “Venus of Urbino” painted by Tiziano Vecelli, also known as Titian.

Image Credit: Jo_nn_a, Pixabay

4. Marie Antionette’s Pet

As Marie Antionette sat in prison awaiting her beheading after being accused of high treason, her pup, Thisbe, waited patiently for her outside. Thisbe, a miniature spaniel assumed to be a Papillon was by her side up until she was moved to the Conciergerie and a woman living nearby felt bad for the pup, taking to feeding him and then into her home. He didn’t much care for being separated from Antionette, so he eventually escaped and made his way back, then smartly inside. The moment she was beheaded, there was a long howl of a dog heard after the silence of the crowd.

5. One Rich Pooch

Lauren Bacall made headlines, along with her longtime companion Sophie, when she left $10,000 to her in her will. The reason why this made such big news? Sophie is a Papillon pooch and a beloved one, at that. Bacall wanted to ensure that Sophie would be able to enjoy the same lavish lifestyle that she’d enjoyed prior to Bacall’s death, and in so doing, had made her one of the richest pooches in the world at the time.

Image Credit: Sebastian Coman Travel, Pexels

6. Strict Breed Standards

The American Kennel Club is responsible for dictating the breed standards for every breed initiated into its ranks. The Papillon was one of the first to earn a spot in the AKC but has some of the strictest standards of all. In fact, just the rules for the colors are so specific that they dictate the shade of colors that can be present, where and what shape the patches of color can be, and more. There are several physical and temperament characteristics that can disqualify a Papillon from participating in a dog show, although many are beloved pets no matter their appearance.

7. Smashing Records

The Papillon has not been a very popular breed for many years, even with so many amazing qualities. However, that seems to be changing as it makes headlines in the dog shows and more people are seeing this beautiful breed. Gabby, a 3-year-old, won the Agility Championship at the Westminster Dog Show in 2019 and did it by breaking the time record for her breed. Another Papillon named Kirby made headlines when he won three major international dog shows in one year. He is the only pup to have accomplished this feat, although several have come close.

little Papillon puppy standing on a leash
Image Credit: Sergey Lavrentev, Shutterstock

8. Two Ear Styles

The first Papillons had “droopy” ears, also called “moth” ears. The signature, erect ears known as “butterfly” ears did not become popular until the 19th century. Today, both types of ears are common and noted in the breed standard as correct, although some clubs may list them as separate breeds. You may even find both ear styles within the same litter and these dogs are similar in every way except for the shape of their ears.

9. One of the Smartest

The Papillon is rated the eighth smartest dog breed by dog psychologist Stanley Coren. Coren has researched dog breeds for decades to determine just how intelligent they are, and Paps have consistently ranked in the top 10. This breed is known for quickly learning new tricks, which is evident in how quickly they pick up agility routines and are highly athletic. They are people-oriented, meaning they are friendly with everyone they meet as long as they are well socialized, and always seem to have a cheerful demeanor.

owner training with papillon dog at home
Image Credit: Miachikova Natalia, Shutterstock

10. Great Mousers/Ratters

Dogs that are great at catching mice and rats aren’t as common as, say, cats. This is especially true of toy breeds that can weigh as little as 5 pounds! Paps had to become smarter in order to catch mice and rats if they were going to be effective at it. Their strategy was to bait the rodents and then chase them to wear them out. Eventually, the Papillon would be faster than the rodent and be able to catch up to it.

11. Very Little Grooming Needed

Unlike many other breeds with long hair, Papillons need very little grooming and they don’t shed very much. They have a single coat, and their fur resembles human hair more than it does the fur of most other dogs. This also means they are one of the more hypoallergenic dog breeds. While no dog is completely hypoallergenic, you may find that this one reduces your allergies, especially with regular brushing and keeping your home free of dust and dander. You do need to pay attention to the long hair around their ears, however. It can be prone to picking up debris, especially when playing outdoors.

papillon purebreed dog sitting on the grass
Image Credit: Anna Maloverjan, Shutterstock

12. Not Great Lap Dogs

Many toy breeds are considered lap dogs, happy to sit with you and be carried around, always wanting a companion nearby. However, the Papillon is an excitable breed with very high energy that will love to run and play. They need constant attention, yes, but with mental stimulation and interactive play. This is why they are so great at agility performance. With training, they are great in apartments, but should always have plenty to keep them busy so they don’t get themselves into trouble. Still, you shouldn’t expect a Pap to sit idly by as you watch TV.

13. A Dog by Many Names

We know Papillons as, well, Papillons in the United States. However, they are known as Continental Toy Spaniels or Continental Dwarf Spaniels in Europe, mostly because of their heritage stemming from toy or dwarf spaniels in the 16th century. Because of their squirrel-like tail, they may also be called Squirrel Spaniels or Squirrel Dogs. As good ratters or mousers who chase rodents, this name is aptly earned! Another appropriate name is Butterfly Spaniel due to their butterfly-like ears and the origin of their name, Papillon.

papillon dog with a haircut for the breed stands and attentively waits for the command
Image Credit: Ihar Halavach, Shutterstock

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Final Thoughts

The Papillon is a unique pup, from its appearance to its personality. Hopefully, these surprising facts have shown you more about what it can do as part of your home as well as what it’s already done, featured prominently in history as well as the record books. Are you ready to welcome a Papillon into your home?

Featured Image Credit: Fayzulin Serg, Shutterstock

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