The royal houses of Europe were home to miniaturized dogs of many breeds, and perhaps none was more trusted as a canine-in-waiting than the Continental Toy Spaniel. So beloved was the little dog that court painters captured its likeness alongside those of kings and queens, and it is through these masterpieces that the legacy of the breed known throughout the world today as the Papillon has been preserved.

The Papillon Club of America provides an exceptional account of the history of the elegant little dogs. Several theories have been proposed as to the breed’s genesis, although most have been dismissed as folklore. What is known with absolute certainty is that Toy Spaniels have existed in Western Europe from at least the 16th century. From the Republic of Venice northward into France, Belgium, the Netherlands and eventually Britain, feathered hunting dogs were reduced in size and elevated in stature to become preferred companions to monarchs and aristocrats.

According to the PCA, the dogs immortalized by Renaissance painters were originally red and white in color with “hanging” ears – a typical Spaniel characteristic. Exactly when and where the ancestor of the Papillon was miniaturized is not precisely documented, but hunting dogs similar to the Welsh Starter and Kooikerhondje (decoy dog) may be possible antecedents.

The Dutch breed, in particular, bears several characteristics similar to those of the Papillon: a moderately rounded skull, rather light construction, a friendly nature, lively agility and a well-feathered coat. The feathering is particularly notable on the tail and ears of both breeds, however any direct link between the two is strictly conjectured.

Its ears, of course, are the hallmark of the Papillon. According to the AKC parent club, the early dogs had “drooping” ears that were “set high, although far enough apart to show the curve of the skull.”

By the 18th century, dogs with prick ear leather began to appear, and by the end of the 19th century the erect ear carriage with its butterfly appearance became all the rage. “In fact, it so caught the public fancy that the new term of ‘Papillon’ [French for butterfly] quickly became the name for the entire breed.” The original drop-eared dogs became known as Phalène, or “night moth” in French.

Considered a single breed in the U.S. and Britain, the Epagneul Nain Continental, as the breed is known by the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI), is divided into two varieties according to ear carriage.

The breed’s famous butterfly ears are most certainly the result of a Victorian era cross or two with another breed or breeds. These pairings also introduced a wide variety of parti-color combinations that have resulted in one of today’s most colorful Toy breeds.

Good looks and an outgoing temperament have given the Papillon ample opportunity to shine in the conformation show ring. The most accomplished star, Ch. Loteki Supernatural Being, ‘Kirby,’ proved the breed’s merit in this arena when he was awarded Best in Show at both the World Dog Show in Helsinki, Finland, in 1998 and at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show the following year.

The friendly and elegant Papillon is a tiny Toy with the intelligence and trainability of a Sporting dog. Neither shy nor aggressive, it excels as a performance dog, particularly well-suited as an obedience dog or agility competitor.

Recognized by the AKC since 1915, the little “butterfly dog” continues to enchant today as evidenced by 2012 registrations that placed it 37th of 175 recognized breeds.

The Papillon is a small, friendly and elegant Toy dog most notable for its beautiful butterfly-like ears. Photo © Sergey Lavrentev/Dreamstime

Butterfly-Like Ears

The General Appearance section of the AKC breed standard describes the Papillon, in part, as being “distinguished from other breeds by its beautiful butterfly-like ears.” No other breed of dog can lay claim to ears that bear an unmistakable likeness to an insect – albeit a beautiful one.

The Papillon references a butterfly by virtue of the markings on its head and ears and the carriage of its well-fringed ears. Collectively these aspects create the outline that gives the breed its name.

In order to capture the breed’s signature look, the ears of the Papillon must be “just so.” In a 1997 AKC Gazette article titled simply, “Type,” columnist Sandy Markowitz comments on the importance of every aspect of this part of the head: “Ears, either large and erect or fully dropped, with well-rounded tips (and oblique carriage on the erect ear), complete the picture.” Other than ear carriage, Phalènes are identical to those Papillons with erect ears.

It should be noted that “erect” refers to ears that stand at roughly a 45-degree angle, and not like those of, say, a Miniature Pinscher or a Toy Manchester.

The inside of the Papillon’s ears is covered with silken hair of medium length. The abundant ear fringe greatly enhances the breed’s butterfly-like appearance.

Color is always “parti-color or white with patches of any color(s),” as described by the breed standard. The head must be a color or colors other than white, covering the front and back of both ears, and extending “without interruption from the ears over both eyes.”

According to the standard, a “clearly defined white blaze and noseband are preferred to a solidly marked head.” These areas of white create the “body” of the butterfly, with the solidly colored ears forming the wings. Symmetry of facial markings is desirable, although the “size, shape, placement, and presence or absence of patches of color on the body are without importance.

“Among the colors there is no preference, provided nose, eye rims and lips are well pigmented black,” as directed by the standard’s section on color. Entirely white dogs and dogs with no white, however, are to be disqualified from the show ring.

A Fine-Boned Elegance

The friendly Papillon is a Toy dog that possesses a particular elegance owing to its “fine-boned” frame. Although it may be considered slim as compared with other breeds of similar size, it is by no means weedy or lacking substance.

The breed’s elegant appearance is expressed with a body that is “slightly longer” than the height measured from the ground to the top of the withers. The Papillon may stand anywhere from 8 to 11 inches tall, and any dog measuring over 11 inches is to be faulted. Those standing more than 12 inches at the shoulder have likely lost their elegance and are to be disqualified.

Never cobby, according to the standard, the Papillon is likewise not long in body either. A profuse chest frill and culottes, however, may give the mistaken impression of a dog that is longer than it actually is.

Forelegs are slender and straight in the breed, with thin, elongated “hare-like” feet. The well-developed hind legs are “slender, fine-boned, and parallel when viewed from behind,” and like those upfront, the rear feet are “elongated” and point neither in nor out.

A Light, Dainty and Lively Action

A social butterfly, the Papillon flutters through life with a “happy, alert and friendly” disposition, and a “light, dainty and…lively action.” Frilled and filled with a sense of adventure, this Toy moves with an easy stride that complements it cheerful attitude.

The gait of the Papillon is described as “free, quick, easy, [and] graceful.” An efficient way of going has positioned the breed well equipped for an active lifestyle. A lightness of foot and a lively action are fine features for a breed that excels as a performance dog. As proof of its power as a performer, many Papillons have titles on both ends of their registered names.

Perhaps due to its Sporting dog ancestry, the breed moves with the facility of a dog expected to hunt all day (even if it’s simply hunting for a good time)! Lively in personality as well as action, the Papillon is one parti-color pet that’s always looking for the next party.