The Papillon: A Guide to Being Owned by One
A Question of Ownership
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.
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, Papillons are feisty, courageous, demanding -- and scary, scary smart.
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 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.
The Royal Pedigree
If people recognize one thing about the Papillon, it's the ears; and if they known 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 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.
Now, About That Intelligence.
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 Great Communicator
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 rapidfire 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.
The Facts, Ma'am, Just the Facts.
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.
More by this Author
Anyone who has had an overdue mare can easily recognize these seven stages of foaling -- in themselves, that is. After nearly a year of waiting for the foal's arrival, we do get a bit impatient!
Oh, you lucky dog: you've got a McNab puppy. Be ready for the ultimate puppy experience, complete with scary-smart behavior, utter happiness, high energy, tons of spunk and just enough naughtiness!
Most people have never heard of a McNab stock dog (also known as a McNab border collie). Here's your chance to meet a very special member of this very special breed. Meet Earl the McNab.