The Papillon was portrayed in portraits dating to the 16th century, a testament to the breed’s age and staying power. Rubens, Watteau, Boucher, Van Dyke, Rembrandt, and Fragonard all portrayed them in various artworks, usually accompanying their doting mistresses. The little spaniels were favorite companions of court ladies throughout Europe. Traders carried them in baskets on mules through France, Italy, and Spain.
The early toy spaniels from which the Papillon descended had drop ears, but in the 17th century court of Louis XIV a small spaniel with upright ears was developed and given the name Papillon for its resemblance to a butterfly. Other names by which the breed has been known over the centuries include Epagneul Nain (dwarf spaniel), Dwarf Continental Spaniels, Little Squirrel Dogs (because their full, plumed tail resembled that of a squirrel) or Belgian Toy Spaniels.
Besides the ears, the only other major change in the breed’s appearance was in color. Originally the little spaniels were solid-colored, but these days they’re white with patches of color. Otherwise, a Papillon today looks much the same as one you might see portrayed in a painting in the Louvre. The drop-eared variety, known as the Phalene, still exists although he’s not as commonly seen. The Papillon ranks 35th among the 155 breeds and varieties registered by the American Kennel Club.
Papillons stand 8 to 11 inches at the shoulder and weigh 4 to 9 pounds.
The Papillon is happy, alert, and friendly. He should never be shy or aggressive. This is, however, a take-charge little dog with a moderate to intense activity level. He’s very smart and highly trainable and is best described as a doer, not a cuddler.
Temperament is affected by a number of factors, including heredity, training, and socialization. Puppies with nice temperaments are curious and playful, willing to approach people and be held by them. Choose the middle-of-the-road puppy, not the one who’s beating up his littermates or the one who’s hiding in the corner. Always meet at least one of the parents — usually the mother is the one who’s available — to ensure that they have nice temperaments that you’re comfortable with. Meeting siblings or other relatives of the parents is also helpful for evaluating what a puppy will be like when he grows up.
Like every dog, Papillons need early socialization — exposure to many different people, sights, sounds, and experiences — when they’re young. Socialization helps ensure that your Papillon pup grows up to be a well-rounded dog. Enrolling him in a puppy kindergarten class is a great start. Inviting visitors over regularly, and taking him to busy parks, stores that allow dogs, and on leisurely strolls to meet neighbors will also help him polish his social skills.
Papillons are generally healthy, but like all breeds, they’re prone to certain health conditions. Not all Papillons will get any or all of these diseases, but it’s important to be aware of them if you’re considering this breed.
If you’re buying a puppy, find a good breeder who will show you health clearances for both your puppy’s parents. Health clearances prove that a dog has been tested for and cleared of a particular condition. In Papillons, you should expect to see health clearances from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) for hip dysplasia (with a score of fair or better), elbow dysplasia, hypothyroidism, and von Willebrand’s disease; from Auburn University for thrombopathia; and from the Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF) certifying that eyes are normal. You can confirm health clearances by checking the OFA web site (offa.org).
- Patellar Luxation: Also known as “slipped stifles,” this is a common problem in small dogs. It is caused when the patella, which has three parts — the femur (thigh bone), patella (knee cap), and tibia (calf) — is not properly lined up. This causes lameness in the leg or an abnormal gait, sort of like a skip or a hop. It is a condition that is present at birth although the actual misalignment or luxation does not always occur until much later. The rubbing caused by patellar luxation can lead to arthritis, a degenerative joint disease. There are four grades of patellar luxation, ranging from grade I, an occasional luxation causing temporary lameness in the joint, to grade IV, in which the turning of the tibia is severe and the patella cannot be realigned manually. This gives the dog a bowlegged appearance. Severe grades of patellar luxation may require surgical repair.
- Hypoglycemia: Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, is a possible problem with all toy breed puppies. Hypoglycemia is easily treatable in the early stages but can be fatal if not treated. It is important that breeders and owners of toy breed puppies recognize the signs and symptoms because this condition can often be misdiagnosed as viral hepatitis or encephalitis by veterinarians. A puppy with hypoglycemia will slow down and become listless, followed by trembling or shivering. Place some honey under his tongue and get him to the vet immediately. If the situation is allowed to continue, he’ll eventually collapse, go into convulsions, fall into a coma, and die. Any time your Papillon is limp, with grayish-blue gums and tongue, it’s an emergency. Hypoglycemia occurs in toy puppies because they do not have the fat reserves to supply adequate glucose in times of stress or when they do not eat regularly.
- Collapsed Trachea: It is not completely understood how this occurs, but the rapid inhalation of air causes the trachea to flatten and makes it difficult for air to enter the lungs, much like a soda straw being drawn on too vigorously. This condition may be inherited; it occurs in certain breeds, and dogs with it show an abnormality in the chemical makeup of their tracheal rings in which the rings lose their stiffness and become unable to retain their circular shape.
- Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA): This is a degenerative eye disorder that eventually causes blindness from the loss of photoreceptors at the back of the eye. PRA is detectable years before the dog shows any signs of blindness. Fortunately, dogs can use their other senses to compensate for blindness, and a blind dog can live a full and happy life. Just don’t make it a habit to move the furniture around. Reputable breeders have their dogs’ eyes certified annually by a veterinary ophthalmologist and do not breed dogs with this disease.
- Open Fontanel: Papillons are born with a soft spot on the top of their head. Usually the soft spot closes, much like a baby’s will, but sometimes one will not close fully. An accidental blow to that spot on the head could kill a Papillon with an unclosed soft spot.
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