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The Papillon: A Guide to Being Owned by One

Marcy is fond of animal husbandry and cares for her intelligent Papillon, "K8."

The (cute) Papillon that rules the Earth. Please make way.

The (cute) Papillon that rules the Earth. Please make way.

Papillons Own You

Perhaps it's not entirely accurate to say I'm owned by a Papillon. It's probably more rightly termed a "partnership" of equal standing. I do know for certain that I'm not completely in charge. Katherine the Great, affectionately known as "K8 the Gr8" to her friends, is very much her own dog.

All About the Papillon

If you've never had the good fortune to know a Papillon personally, but you've seen photos or videos of them, you might dismiss them as perky, cute, good-natured dogs—but lightweights. If you've been blessed with a Papillon in your life, you'd laugh at the lightweight part. Papillon people know that beneath those frilly ears and that Minnie Mouse smile, they are feisty, courageous, demanding—and scary, scary smart.

When K8 Joined the Pack

K8 is soon to be 13 and has been training me for all but eight weeks of that time. From the beginning, I knew she was a force to be reckoned with. She was four pounds when I got her, if that; as a larger Papillon, she is now 15 pounds of fierce cuteness . . . or cute fierceness.

I had just lost my half-Pap half-Chihuahua and knew my life would not be complete without a Papillon presence. I told the fellow I was dating at the time that I was off to see a litter of Papillons, and he replied, "You're not getting one, are you?" I knew at that moment we'd never have a future. I looked at him with thinly-veiled disdain and said, "If you think for one moment I'm looking at a litter of Papillons and coming home empty-handed, you don't know me at all."

K8 was the last one remaining of a litter of eight. Clearly, she waited for me. How else to explain that the little ball of fluffy attitude could possibly be left behind? She promptly took control of the household. She told the much-larger Dalmatians exactly what to do. She had a knack for walking over to a big dog and simply removing a toy, or bone, or anything else she wanted, from its mouth, and sashaying off proudly. Was it charm, or the look in her eye that said, "I'm small, but I'm feisty, and I can take you!" When my two Dal sisters gave in to old age, I brought home brother and sister Labradors—big ones, at that.

K8 immediately laid down the law to them. When Earl the McNab joined us a few years ago, K8 promptly told him, "What's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine, too." She continues to snatch toys from the jaws of her bigger pals. No one touches K8's dinner, but she will saunter over and share theirs. K8 reigns with an iron paw.

Papillons Are Good Herders, Mousers, and Ratters

If people recognize one thing about the Papillon, it's the ears; and if they know only one bit of trivia about them, it's the meaning of their name. Papillon is, of course, French for "butterfly." It refers to the lovely butterfly silhouette of their flowing-furred ears. There are also "Phalene" Papillons, who have the same long-haired ears, but they are not erect; if you have a preference for Spaniel-eared dogs, you might want to check into a Phalene.

Papillons are an old French breed of Spaniel. The Spaniel lineage is what gives them their resilience and spirit; they have a genetic memory of being a sporting dog. Long kept by royalty, with many a Louis here and there, they shared the royal bedchambers and protected the kings they owned from rodents. They still retain that instinctive ability to catch and kill mice and rats.

I've always had farm animals around, and I live in a rural area; field mice, packrats, kangaroo rats, and other rodents are never far off. K8 is a bold hunter. I'm not exaggerating: I once dug up the mouse nests that had been established in the bottom of my outdoor aviary and ran water to flush them out. K8 killed 13 mice in a row and neatly stacked them.

For most of my life, I've kept chickens. For a while, I had some lighter-weight chickens that were easily able to fly over the 8-foot fence and into my backyard. K8 was an incredible chicken-shepherd. She'd race into action when I'd say, "K8! Chicken!" and fly toward the door. I'd let her out to do her job. She'd round up the hen, hold it against the fence, and I'd pick it up and put it back on the proper side of the fence.

As such a hard-working chicken-hound, she felt entitled to the eggs she'd find on "her" side of the fence, as well. She'd pick them up, carefully carry them around without breaking them, and hide them in corners of the house.

K8 is probably not the only Papillon who "air buries" her treasures. The eggs were no exception. She'd set them gently on the ground and shovel air toward them as if burying them. Of course, when outside, she buried many a treasure in the soft dirt -- but what to do on tile? Obviously, air burial was the intelligent option.

K8 at the computer.  I wonder what she's ordering from Amazon this time?

K8 at the computer. I wonder what she's ordering from Amazon this time?

They Are Smart Dogs

Papillons are unbelievably intelligent. As such, they're not for everyone. They are more like tiny human geniuses in furry little bodies than they are like dogs. K8 has such a reputation for braininess that whenever I've been unable to find something, we'd suspect that K8 had sold it on Ebay. Although at 12 her hearing has diminished considerably, I've always felt she understands every spoken word—and who knows what she can read? She was extraordinarily easy to train, and reacts as quickly to a tilt of my head or a subtle expression as she does to words.

I always enjoy teaching my dogs odd little tricks. For example, I teach them all to sneeze on command—just for the amusement value. K8 will sneeze when waiting for her treats. Since K8 sleeps snuggled up against me in bed, I also taught her that if I rub my hands together, that means "scat." When I need to turn over or get up, I just rub my hands together and she quickly hops away. Usually, K8 predicts what I need her to do, and reacts before I have a chance to warn her—she's not the kind of dog who'll get underfoot. For a small dog, it's a matter of survival.

The reason I originally picked Papillons was their ranking on dog intelligence lists. They are generally cited in the top ten, and in my opinion, that doesn't do them justice. They're smarter than a lot of people I know. They communicate clearly, they express themselves creatively, they have a tremendous sense of humor (clearly a sign of intellect!), and they have a profound insight into "family dynamics" -- they understand other dogs as well as the human mind.

One interesting characteristic I've observed in K8 that isn't as prevalent in my other dogs is her ability to understand delayed gratification. It shows itself on many occasions, but the best example is probably her dinner habit. While the boys, Earl the McNab and Argos the Lab, are in a fit of anticipation for dinner, K8 is the dignified lady. She sits down, one paw raised delicately in the air, and waits for the dinner to be properly prepared. She is all eagerness, but she knows it's coming.

My husband, the master-feeder-of-dogdom, likes to add little surprises to the meals. He'll stick a biscuit in occasionally, standing it upright in the mix of canned and dry dog food. K8 will carefully move it aside, and eat the entire meal, licking the bowl clean—and then she'll remove the treat and trot over to her leather cushion with it, where she ceremoniously lies down and slowly enjoys it. She understands the concept of "dessert." The boys, of course, go immediately for the biscuit and wolf it down before finishing the rest of their meal. They can't even spell delayed gratification, much less practice it.

Even when K8 insists on a mid-day snack (several times throughout the day, truth be told), she is elegant and reserved when receiving it. This is a dog who probably had an official taster back in her days at the royal court. Even though it's likely the same treat out of the same batch of favorite treats she sampled ten minutes before, she always pauses, sniffs it carefully, and then slowly reaches to take it. Her eyes always dart upward and rest on your own briefly, as if saying, "Thank you."

My husband gets impatient and sometimes slides the treat forward at her as if trying to put a coin in a slot machine—or he'll pull the treat away a couple of times until she finally snatches at it, giving him an exasperated look. Empresses don't like to be trifled with.

The royal yawn.  Ennui, anyone?

The royal yawn. Ennui, anyone?

Papillons Are Vocal and Great Communicators

Some dog owners take great umbrage when their dog growls. I don't, unless it is clearly an aggressive growl. But not all growls are equal. Dogs don't just growl out of aggression; they also growl to convey many other thoughts.

K8 growls to let us know, "Hey! I'm right here—don't step on me!" She'll growl to invite us (or her dogmates) to play, or to make it clear that her toy is HER toy. She'll growl at her toys, as she's spinning around in rapid-fire circles, just before launching them across the room. She'll growl at snakes and toads. She'll make a low, nervous growling noise when I'm doing something that makes her nervous—like filing her toenails. It's not a threat; it's communication.

K8 is not a yappy dog—certainly not. It would be beneath her. But she's a very verbal dog. She's constantly communicating. She doesn't like it when I sit at the computer at night and write; she wants me to come to bed with everyone else. She lies in the hallway, just next to the threshold of my office door, and growls. She'll growl like that for half an hour, if that's what it takes.

If she needs to show me something, she'll growl—I can tell when she's saying, "Follow me!" She used that technique when she needed to tell me that my yellow Lab had locked herself in the bathroom, and when something's not right with some part of the house. K8 has it all under control.

My husband enjoys playing a certain game with K8, which is great entertainment thanks to her innate courage and scrappy nature. When she stares at him and growls, wanting attention, he'll adopt a mean expression, roll back his sleeves, and make a fist. He squares off against her like a boxer. K8 jumps into action, dashing forward and bouncing against him, growling and barking. She loves their mock fights. There is no fear in that dog's body.

This morning, I took her to the barn with me and held her up to say hello to a couple of the horses. The newest one, a big half-draft galoot of a guy, stuck his friendly nose out to smell her and nibble on her fur. K8, without a second thought, snapped and nipped at his nose. No one approaches the empress without better manners than that!

In addition to her growling and occasional barking (never without a reason), K8 has a wide variety of noises we can only describe as "lizard noises." She hisses, she whistles, she grumbles and rumbles. She sometimes sounds as if she's spoken. She snores—even while she's awake. Eyes wide open, she'll be lying on the bed, staring at you—snoring. She is vocal, all the time, waking or asleep. Each noise means something different; sometimes I'm just not smart enough to keep up with her vast vocabulary.

A muddy-nosed huntress.

A muddy-nosed huntress.

Is It the Right Breed for You?

Perhaps you're thinking about adding a Papillon to your family. First, understand their unique temperaments: that's why I've described K8's personality as I have. They must have owners who respect them, and understand that they aren't bad-tempered—they're just verbal.

In fact, they're some of the happiest, most spirited dogs you'd ever hope to meet. They're just darned smart. They expect to have a voice in the decision-making, and they're sensible enough that you might be best served by listening to that voice. Papillons do everything for a reason, even if we don't always understand that reason. Trust the Papillon.

They're easy to train, but you must train them—or they'll run the show, and the neighbor's show, too. They excel at obedience, agility, and chess. They are tough, athletic dogs who make great running partners. You must protect them from other, aggressive dogs, though—I know K8 will not back down from a fight, and she doesn't realize she's a midget.

Papillons have long, soft fur. As such, it will matt if you don't groom them regularly. They don't need to be shaved, just brushed. They're just the right size to bathe in the sink (and K8 does love her baths). Get ready for the "rocket-dog" antics once you've toweled them off and put them on the floor. You might want to have the video camera ready.

Along with that beautiful fur comes the shedding. They shed a little year-round, which is minimized if you feed a good salmon oil or olive oil on a regular basis, but twice a year K8 blows her coat. For a couple of weeks, it'll look like someone slit open a pillow—fluff wafts through the air with each movement. It's easy to pick up—on your shirt, your pants, and your linens, that is. A little bit of K8 fur used to accompany me to my office at work, where it would attach itself to my office chair 20 miles away. Invest in a good lint roller—or just use duct tape folded over your hand, sticky-side out.

Papillons, being the smart and active dogs they are, are very interactive. They aren't the breed for the person who wants a dog who'll lie in the other room and stay out of the person's way (seriously, get a cat). Low-maintenance, they're not. They want to be with you, engaging you in conversation. They want to be snuggled up beside you at night, to best ensure no bed-monsters will attack you. It's for your own good. They want to go on all your road trips.

If you get one from a proper breeder, as you should, you'll find they're remarkably well-adjusted, vigorous, hardy, and not prone to skin issues, musculoskeletal disorders, eye problems, or breathing difficulties. The breed is, fortunately, not so bred for "type" to have created freaks of nature. As with many small breeds, though, housebreaking can be challenging. Crate-training is a great help, and securing them in a playpen while you're out is a good way to remind them not to use that far corner of the house as their chamberpot.

They are naturally clean dogs, but that doesn't stop them from enjoying a good dig in the mud when there's a rodent to be harassed. Handle their paws a lot when they're puppies so you'll have an easy job of it when you need to trim their nails. I use a Dremel tool on K8; as long as my husband is holding her against himself snugly, she's a perfect lady for her pedicure.

Papillons are nothing short of amazing personalities. They'll have you laughing at their constant antics. K8, even at the age where her muzzle and eyebrows have greyed, continues to come up with new acts. Every time I quit petting her and she gently takes my hand in her teeth and places it back on the spot she wants scratched, I admire her ability to convey her wishes. Each time she greets me with her favorite toy (a Mr. Bill) and I hear it saying, "Ohhhh noooooo!" as she madly squeezes it, I laugh. And in her sweeter moments, when she and Earl the McNab gently extend their noses and kiss each other lovingly, I marvel at the deep affection between them.

If you're lucky enough to be owned by a Papillon, you're in for a royally good time.

Questions & Answers

Question: Our little two year old Papillon, Princess, is very similar to K8. Why do we continue to have aggressive growling and snapping at my husband in the early morning when all he wants to do is remove her from our bed to leash her and let her pee outside? She returns to bed immediately to complete her beauty sleep--but it's always the same routine and we always get the snapping and growling! How do we reason with her?

Answer: Papillons tend to be very vocal about their likes and dislikes! The Papillons I've had were all growlers; as small dogs, they're keenly aware of their vulnerability, and they use growling to vocalize for their own safety. Bedtime growling is often a means of saying, "Don't roll over on me," or - as it is in Princess's case - "Don't disturb me." I allow mine to growl, but snapping is not permitted. I'm afraid I don't have an easy solution to recommend; what works for me is scolding my current Papillon (Mattie-K8) when she goes from growling to snarling. Perhaps performing an "alpha roll" might help - rolling Princess over firmly but not roughly and holding her with her belly up while telling her, "Princess, stop it." They're such smart dogs that sometimes it's like dealing with a stubborn human child!


Jess on November 15, 2016:

I loved reading your article! Every word you wrote I felt you could have been writing about my papillon Carlee Rose. It is utterly amazing to me how accurate you were in the breeds discription and I had not realized how may of the things Carlee does are due to the natural personality of a papillon.

You are so right Carlee Rose and I co-own each other, when people ask how I train such a well behaved dog I tell them "She trained me!" and it's the truth. I tell people it is very difficult to have a dog smarter than you are, she some days is. When asked if I "let" her sleep in bed with me, I answer to shocked faces "No!" Then I say, "She lets ME sleep in bed with her!" To which I always get a laugh. She is an amazing little creature and I feel very fortunate to be able to live each day of my life with her by my side! How did I get so lucky?

Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on April 14, 2014:

Thanks so much, Diana. I've always enjoyed having one small dog and two bigger dogs at any given time. Funny how the little ones rule the roost, isn't it? Thanks again and best wishes! -- MJ

Setab on April 14, 2014:

I'm so sorry for your loss. I know that pain. We have small dogs also and have to watch them due to the Mtn Lions and Bobcats in the mtns here. We just love our Mini Schnauzers and can't live without them. Good luck with your new dog.

Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on April 13, 2014:

Oh, Diana, thanks so much for your kind comment. I am sad to say that we lost K8 the Gr8 in November to lung cancer. She was 13. She took a huge chunk of me with her. I'll never know another dog so human in her ways -- for such a tiny girl, she left giant paw prints to fill. A week ago, her "big brother," my black Lab, joined her. Thank heavens we will be picking up our new puppy (a McNab) next weekend. If it weren't for our harsh setting with so many threats to small dogs, I'd be picking out a new Papillon as well -- but the coyotes, bobcats, scorpions and rattlesnakes here are awfully dangerous to the little ones. What do you want to bet I won't be able to go without one in the family for very long?

Best wishes -- MJ

Setab on April 12, 2014:

What a great dog. Thanks for sharing her story, I love to hear about the different breeds. You have a way with words.

Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on May 01, 2013:

Peggy, thank you for enjoying K8's hub. She is a very special little girl. There is no end to her energy, her intelligence, and her amusing and entertaining antics! I hope a Papillon joins your other furries someday -- you'd love them! Thank you for pinning.

-- MJ

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 01, 2013:

I love how you described your smart little feisty Papillon girl who has captured your heart. We have never been owned by one...but I would now know what to expect were it to happen. Up, useful and interesting votes and pinning to by dogs board on Pinterest. Enjoyed reading this as we are animal lovers. :)

Marcy J. Miller (author) from Arizona on April 17, 2013:

Thanks so much, DrMark! No, I don't have a account. Papillons certainly do shed -- boy, do they ever! It's one of many things they excel at. They shed minimally throughout most of the year (although it's still noticeable, as the hair clings to everything) but twice a year they blow their coats. Rodent-sized chunks of fluff roam the hallways as that hair comes off. The coat-blowing only lasts a few weeks but it makes a believer out of you. In recent years, K8's shedding patterns changed --- her coat tufts rather than shedding evenly, and the tufts stick out of her like a moth-eaten wool sweater. My brush is always close at hand! Thanks again -- I so appreciate your kind words.

Mark dos Anjos DVM from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on April 17, 2013:

I really enjoyed this. You were able to tell it all about this breed, the good, the bad, and the scary.

Do you have an account on I read an article the other day on the Papillon. Did you know that they do not shed? I was surprised too.