Owning Papillon Dogs

Papillon owners share what it's like to live with these spirited, smart dogs.



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Janis McLaren will never forget the first day she met a Papillon. "This delicate dog came up to me, reached out and put her paw on my leg. It was like being touched by a butterfly," she remembers. Today, McLaren has a small but successful show-dog kennel in Camas, Washington. She's surrounded by a little pack of butterflies that continue to enchant her every day.

As the breed has catapulted from obscurity to popularity since the mid-1990s, a lot of people are experiencing the magic of being touched by a butterfly dog. It's easy to be charmed. A Papillon in the right home is a joyful, happy little sprite that seems to have almost-human intelligence and even ESP with its owner.

Still, those of us who love the breed will be the first to say that a Papillon isn't the dog for everyone. They can be too busy, energetic and demanding for many people. Their sensitive nature can sometimes lead to shyness. To make it more complicated, there's such a wide array of Papillon personalities, sizes and physical needs. One particular Pap might be your dream dog; another could be a terrible mistake.

Here are some things to think about before you decide to bring a Papillon into your home.

Busy Butterflies
Paps have been some of the top dogs of all time in the physically and mentally demanding sports of agility and obedience. Papillons have been trained as clever service dogs that help their disabled owners make beds, get dressed and retrieve out-of-reach items. Tiny Papillon noses are aces at tracking scents across tough terrain.

Think about what a dog needs to be able to do all those jobs well: energy. Lots of energy. It's not a coincidence that Papillons often have action names, such as Tigger, Bounce, Bungee, Pogo, Turbo, Speedy and Flyer. "We all know that Papillons are smart and we applaud that as one of their best features. But if these dogs don't get mental and physical stimulation from their owners, they will find it for themselves," says Tracy Halverson Burdick of Denver, Colorado, who's bred or owned more than 150 Champion Papillons and some of the top obedience and agility competitors in the breed.

How much exercise can one small dog need? Take, for example, a woman who was enrolled in one of my obedience classes with a 10-month-old rescue Papillon. Every week, she took her dog for a 6-mile hike before coming to class, just to work off enough energy so the dog could concentrate on the lesson.

Although this dog is certainly more energetic than most, there is no typical Papillon energy level. "There is a range of activity levels in the breed," McLaren says. "I've had dogs that need full-time jobs like a Border Collie, to dogs that just want to lie on the couch."

Most Papillons can have their energy needs met by chasing a ball across a room, or going for a brisk walk or two a day. Still, some need an hour or more of daily exercise to be content.

On the other end of the spectrum are fairly low-energy Paps, although they're much more rare than high-energy dogs. If you're looking at the breed because you want an agility competitor or a hiking partner, you'll likely be disappointed if you end up with a dog that prefers to be king or queen of the couch.

Surprisingly for a lap-sized dog, most Papillons don't really want to sit on your lap. They are universally devoted to their owners, following them around from room to room. They'll stare at you adoringly, but most seem to prefer to sit and look at you for hours at a time—without snuggling. If having a cuddler matters to you, the Papillon might not be the dog for you.

Thinking Papillons
Papillons plot and plan to get what they want. If another dog has a toy that a Papillon wants, your Pap may run to the door and bark wildly. The other dog invariably drops the toy to see who's at the door — while the Papillon turns and grabs the prize.
Papillons have been known to fool even their humans. I'm one of them. One day I was visiting a friend who also has Papillons. Our dogs had spent a happy afternoon playing in her huge fenced yard. When it grew dark, we all went inside for dinner. After about 15 minutes, my dog Radar went to the sliding-glass door, scratched it, wiggled and moaned — his signal that it was a potty emergency. He was telling me he had to go out to potty now.

"We were just outside," I said to him.

Radar moaned and scratched.

"Are you sure?" More moaning, scratching and an extra wiggle.

I opened the door to let him out, and Radar responded with a chortle of joy. Right in front of him on the dark porch was my friend's cat, and Radar led the rest of the dogs on a merry chase of the kitty.

Radar had lied.

A Papillon's intelligence can be either an asset or a liability, depending on the household. "There couldn't be a more intelligent — even human-like — companion. People end up with an animal that's almost like a real child, and that isn't an easy thing when you already have three kids. That's what you get — another child with four legs," says Burdick, who has fostered 50 rescue dogs over the years in addition to caring for her own.


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Pat   Warwick, Rhode Island

7/22/2014 5:13:00 AM

I adopted a 3yr old pap from a pound he was very abused. I took him to my shop I'm a groomer straightened his hair out he is a very good dog except I think he's having separation axieity plus he sit and looks like he is catching flies like a frog does just wanted to know if this common in this bred. I live him so much. Take him to work everyday so he ca socialize with the other dogs

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ESPERANSA   texas, International

2/17/2013 3:33:29 AM

I have a Papillon. We got her 3 yrs ago. he is very special and very sensitive and shy. She is very protective of us. We got her at 7 mths and she had not been very socialized with other people or dogs. It took her a few days to get use to us and our place. She would make growling sounds because she was scared. I told my family to just ignore her, not talk to her or make eye contact with her. She slowly started coming towards us, smelling us until she felt comfortable.

Now it been 3 yrs and she still makes growling sounds but now she does it to play and get our attention. She also sometimes makes other sounds like shes talking but with just changes the pitch of her voice making high and low sounds. Some times she plays with my 16 yr old and sounds like a Grimlin and our quests cant believe the sounds are coming from our
She sometimes looks a you and turns her head to the side and just gives you a long stare. She follows me everywhere when I get home from work and has been a great addition to our family. She is very special, very smart, we much loved and she knows it :)

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Laura   Frostproof, FL

3/4/2012 4:13:22 PM

A friend from where I work gave us a part Papillon/Chihuahua mix. She was born Oct. 25th, and I brought her home on Dec. 23rd. She is starting to get the long hair so I'm hoping she will have more of the Papillon look. She is so fiesty, but fits right in with our other 3 dogs of which 2 are Chihuahua mixed breed both from the same little, and they will be 6 years old this Oct. The 3rd member of our dog family is Rosie a Jack Russell I adopted from the Humaine Society when she was 10 months old. She will be 2 this Nov. Our Papillon mix is named Cocoa because of her color. She and the Jack Russell are best buds. Cocoa shows no fear fo anything. She will be on the bed or couch, and just go sailing off to chase Rosie. My husband is retired so he is home with them all the time, and they like to spend a good part of the day out in the yard with him. We have a acre of all fenced in propery so they can run and play all they like. All 4 sleep with us in our king size bed, and each has their favorite spot. They are all 4 our babies and as I'm sure most serious dog lovers do we call ourselves Mama and Daddy to them.

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Louis   Reno, NV

12/22/2009 11:49:45 AM

Mine is only a Papillon mix, yet his intelligence is amazing. He loves to play hide and seek (I call him after I'm hidden, he gets a treat when he finds me), and "catch me if you can" around the house with one of his toys. He'll even drop the toy and feign complete disinterest, until you're an inch away from grabbing it - then he snaps it up before you can get it and runs away, even squeaking the toy as a taunt when he knows you have no chance of catching him. Little booger! :)

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