The ancestry of the Papillon is still a mystery. Some people argue that the Papillon descends from Asian toy breeds such as the Japanese Chin, while others believe that the miniaturization of European spaniels occurred simply from crossing smaller and smaller breed specimens, without introducing blood from the Far East. Whatever their exact origin, tiny spaniels (called Continental Toy Spaniels and Dwarf Spaniels) were well established in Europe by the 1200s. The Papillon is the modern version of those tiny dogs, which often were depicted in paintings and tapestries, sitting in the laps of or being held by noble ladies of the day. Many great artists painted Papillons in their portraits, including Titian, Goya, Rubens, Rembrandt, Fragonard, Watteau, Van Dyke, Velasquez, Toulouse-Lautrec and Boucher, among others. Madame de Pompadour owned two Dwarf Spaniels – Inez and Mimi. Marie Antoinette was another proud admirer and owner of the breed. There is record of a Papillon being sold in 1545 to a lady who later ascended to the throne of Poland. The Papillon has always been a high-status dog. Spain is largely responsible for initiating the breed’s immense popularity, although Bologna, Italy, is probably responsible for the highest volume of trade. Many Dwarf Spaniels were sold to Louis XIV, who chose among all that were brought into France. A Bolognese man named Filipponi was the primary trader of these little dogs in the early day and developed a good business with the French court. Most Dwarf Spaniels initially were transported between countries on the backs of pack mules.
During the reign of Louis the Great, the Dwarf Spaniel had long, folded ears and was also known as the Phalene (after a kind of moth that drops its wings). Over time, some of these dogs were born with large erect ears, set far down on the head and well-fringed with long, silky hair. Why this development happened is unclear; some suggest a mutation in the original down-eared Phalene, while others claim that the drop-eared Phalene was crossed with prick-eared miniature spitz dogs to produce the erect ear set. Regardless, today we have a toy breed whose body type and coat are identical to that of the original Dwarf Spaniel, but whose ears may be either erect (up) or drooping (down).
Both varieties can appear in the same litter, regardless of the ear-type of the parents. The name “Papillon” means “butterfly” in French and was chosen for this breed in reference to the newer variety with erect, fully fringed ears. The drop-eared Papillon is still called the “Phalene” throughout Europe, where the Phalene and the erect-eared Papillon are recognized as separate varieties of the Continental Toy Spaniel. In North America, the Papillon is a single breed, with two acceptable styles of ear carriage. Both types are judged together in this country, and neither is preferred over the other under the American breed standard. Once the erect-eared variety became established, it rapidly overtook the Phalene in popularity – so much so that many people think the down-eared type is a minor variant of the up-eared Papillon, instead of its immediate ancestor. Actually, it would be more accurate to call the Papillon a “Prick-Eared Phalene” than to call the Phalene a “Drop-Eared Papillon.” Another development in this breed pertains to color. The original Dwarf Spaniels were solid in color. The modern Papillon has white as its predominant color, with patches of other colors scattered about. Solid colors are disqualified from the show ring today.
Despite its broad popularity, the Papillon did not arrive in England until 1901. The Kennel Club (England) accepted the breed in 1923. Papillons arrived in the United States during the first decade of the 20th century. The American Kennel Club recognized the Papillon in 1915, and admitted it for full registration eligibility in the mid-1930s as a member of the Toy Group. It was not until 1935 that Papillons were represented in the AKC by their own breed club, the Papillon Club of America.
Papillons have long been highly effective ratters. While they are too small to pursue and kill a healthy adult rat outright, they will play it (or “worry” it) relentlessly until it tires. Once the rat is completely exhausted, the Papillon will finish the job. In addition to its rodent-catching skills, the Papillon is an excellent tracking dog, a titled performer in obedience and agility, a show ring standout and a wonderful hearing ear dog and therapy assistant. Mostly, however, it is a happy, unusual and treasured personal companion.
The average life span of the Papillon is 13 to 16 years. Breed health concerns may include patellar luxation, black hair follicular dysplasia, congenital deafness, entropion, cataracts and progressive retinal atrophy.