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The Papillon is believed to be one of the oldest toy breeds of dogs originated in continental Europe and was a favorite at the French court. The most famous owner was Henry III – documentation of his devotion to the breed lies in his declaration of the Papillon as the official dog of the Royal Court during his tenure. Other famous owners are said to have been Marie Antoinette, and Madame de Pompadour.
There is evidence that these small dogs were favorites of predominantly French royalty during the time of the Old Masters, as the Continental Toy Spaniel (Phalenes and Papillons) were included in many Old Master royal portraits from as early as the sixteenth century.
The are many stories about the Papillon. Marie Antoinette was said to have walked to the guillotine clutching her small dog under her arm. It is said that her dog was a small spaniel that had been brought to the French court from Spain on the back of pack mules. The story goes that that her pup was spared and cared for in a building in Paris still called the Papillon House. Marie's small spaniel was said to have descended from a very old breed drop-earred breed known as the Epagneul Nain Continental, or Continental Dwarf/Toy Spaniel that started showing up in church frescos and paintings as far back as the 13th century.
Still today, this breed is officially referred to in non-English-speaking countries as the Epagneul Nain Continental (ENC). Some say that the name Squirrel Spaniel has also been used, most likely referring to an earlier standard in which the tail set is referred to as "curling over the back as a squirrel's." One version of the story of the history of the two varieties of ears in the ENC ("Papillon" to denote the erect ear and "Phalene" to denote the drop ear) is that toward the end of the 19th century, the breed fanciers bred a version of the spaniel whose ears stood up. This dog was said to have been nick-named Papillon based on the impressively large erect ears that resembled the wings of a butterfly. The drop eared variety of the breed came to be called the Phalène (which means "night moth."). Both types are still bred today and can show up in the same litter although the Papillon variety is much more common.
The "ideal" modern Papillon is considered by many today to be required to have a "beautiful" [long and flowing] coat, which is considered proper only if it is a single coat (i.e., has no fluffy or cottony undercoat), short on the head but profuse around the neck, chest, and pantaloons. The tail should be a plume of long hair. A proper single coat insures relatively low maintenance in grooming. The large erect ears and fringe on the ears is the most notable physical attribute of the erect-eared breed today. The Phalene of today is the same as the erect-eared Papillon excluding its dropped spaniel ears. The two breeds are considered equal.
Even though the breed has the connotation of a dainty toy breed, many owners will tell you they act like big dogs in a small dog bodies. There are at least three possible reasons for this. First, some people believe the Papillon is very capable of handling a good five-mile walk. Some people believe the reality is they will resist such an outing if the grass is dampish or if there are two clouds in the sky that might lead to rain, but others have experienced them as very versatile in almost all conditions, although not necessarily with prolonged exposure. Perhaps they seem to be larger dogs because to many people Papillons appear not to be prone to small dog quaking when confronted with a new situation. In fact, some Papillon owners believe that their dogs interpret that any new event has been put on for their benefit, and believe that the dogs do their best to be an attentive host or hostess. A third aspect of the Papillon that has lead many to believe the big dog assertion is that this breed has surprised many people with its athleticism. Perhaps people are surprised that in contrast to the staid and stately Old Master portraits, the Papillon is highly energetic, and highly intelligent (Coren, in The Intelligence of Dogs rates the Papillon as eighth of all breeds). Provided their genetic structure is sound and they are healthy, Papillons are built for movement, and most don't need any encouragement to apply their energy to athletic activities.
In recent years the Papillon has become a small dog star in the sport of agility. This sport consists of an obstacle course with tunnels, jumps, A-frames, and narrow bridges that a dog completes at top speed aided only by verbal and hand commands from a handler. Agility requires the dog to spring, scramble, weave, and turn on a dime. This breed is considered an agility natural, and Papillons compete at both national and international trials. Some people believe that Papillons take on as their main assignment the winning of the companion and lap dog sweepstakes, and take it very seriously. Others have experienced Papillons as highly companionable, but physically active dogs requiring appropriate socialization, consistent and monitored exercise, continued training (which also serves to stimulate their active minds), and daily, pro-active human-to-canine interaction.