A Boxer with a long head? An Akita with a sparse coat? A Beagle with a sharp face? A giant Yorkie? These features – and you can fill in the blank for just about any breed – are often defined (and even delighted in!) by owners and breeders as "throwback" characteristics, or "old-style" characteristics.
How do you know if that's the case, or if what you have is just a poorly bred dog?
Here are a couple of rules of thumb to know if you do NOT have a throwback dog:
1) The supposed "throwback" characteristic is one that affects the main visual difference between the breed and every other.
For example, if you think about a Dalmatian, it's the round and separated spots. If you think about a Cocker it's the face and ears. If you think about a Collie it's the heavy coat.
The reason those are the first things that come to mind is often because those are the traits that are the most unlike any other dog, the traits that took the longest to develop (for breeders) and are the hardest to maintain. Because they're so hard to maintain, as soon as you stop working so deliberately on them they quickly revert back to the more generic.
An American Cocker with a long, pointy nose is almost never a throwback; it's just a poorly bred dog.
2) Breed-specific rescue is full of dogs that look like yours.
Purebred rescue is the best place to see a whole bunch of poorly bred purebreds. If the coat on your dog is the same as the coat on thirty dogs that the national breed rescue is trying to place, what you have is not a throwback. It's just poorly bred.
3) There was no specific effort on the part of your breeder, and no criteria for rejecting the effort.
There's nothing wrong with deciding that a different style or conformation suits the job better and breeding toward that end. Right now we're on the leading edge of purpose-bred dogs for flyball and agility, which look like they'll follow the model established by the sport horse movement – dogs selected for a body and a brain that succeed at the highest levels of organized gaming. These will, I predict, be the forces that shape new breeds from now on, not the older jobs of hunting or herding or protection.
If someone is building a dog for agility and wants something that looks like a cross between a Jack Russell and a Whippet, and are doing so by breeding taller and taller and taller purebred JRTs, more power to them, as long as they have criteria for defining success beyond "She's cute" and are rejecting the majority of their attempts as failures and making sure they're not being bred on from.
Another great example is the development of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, where the English toy spaniel fancy had gone for very flat faces and then (thanks to a challenge in the Crufts catalog) good, passionate, interested breeders decided to re-create the earlier type and asked for the very best examples of longer-faced dogs to be brought to them so they could be retained as breeding dogs. In that case they did go looking for an older (and many would at that time have said plainer) type, but they were immediately putting the dogs back in the show ring and asking them to satisfy the requirements of sound type and good construction beyond the appearance of the head.
If your breeder just happened to get Bichons without curly hair, that's not a throwback.
Or, picking on my own dogs, Ginny looks very much like the REALLY old toy spaniels, Victoria's spaniels for example. She is thinner in bone and face than the modern Cavalier and has more color. But that is NOT because she's a "throwback" to a good old genuine type; it's because she's super poorly bred in a puppy mill from a combination of breeds. It would never be responsible to breed on from her, no matter how much I might personally like the way she looks.
Which brings us to the next question –
You have a dog that somebody told you is the old style, or a throwback, or you personally think looks like the older style of whatever breed he or she is. Should you breed him or her?
The questions you need to ask yourself are the same as above.
Is there any benefit, beyond visual, to the characteristic you have? Is it available in any other breed?
If your corgi has really long legs and a really short body, do you understand what that means in terms of her herding style? Is she genuinely offering anything new or better that a person can't get by buying a Vallhund or even a Border Collie? Have you actually improved something, both biomechanically and in terms of the breed's unique function? Do others in your peer group and your orthopedic vet agree with you? This question must be answered with no thought to how much you may personally love her or how much you may enjoy the way she works – you have to separate her from her body. She may be a great little herder, but is it because her body actually works better than everyone else's body? That's the question you have to answer before you reproduce that body.
If the characteristic is coat – and it seems often to be – then are you offering something that actually doesn't exist? As you know, I have very little attachment to coat as a "must," but I think any coat should be functional if you're going to start actually TRYING to fall off the wagon of the established breed coat. If you have a very thin-coated Pekingese and you love it because it's easy to groom and no burrs stick in it, the only reason it would be worth deliberately reproducing as a characteristic is if it is ALSO better (not just for you, but for everybody) than the Pug coat, the Tibetan Spaniel coat, the Japanese Chin coat, the English Toy Spaniel coat, etc. If it isn't, then you should just send people who like your dog's coat to the national club for Japanese Chin, not populate the earth with weird-coated Pekingese.
Will the puppies offer anything not available in rescue?
There is absolutely no value in producing a ton of Poodles with really soft, sparse hair, if that's the characteristic that you like. Poodle rescue is choked with them. There's no value in producing long-legged Dachshunds; there are thousands of them in rescue. Tall, thin Yorkies? Old English Sheepdogs with lots of spots? Malamutes that are small? Danes with small heads? Labs with super long legs? Scotties with single coats? Long-legged short-bodied Pems? Blue-eyed ANYTHING? Every single one of these is available by the hundreds and thousands in rescue.
If you personally love the feature your dog has, and it's commonly found in rescue dogs, what a huge blessing, because you'll be able to keep rescuing dogs instead of ever breeding, and you'll be able to send others who like that feature to rescue too.
Are you making excuses?
If you love your dog, and you SHOULD love your dog, you need to be very careful that you are not letting your love for him make the decision for you. There's a tendency we have to do like we do with our kids, when we feel that they've been hurt or impugned; we gather them close against our sides and say "I'd rather have you than anyone else in the world – why would I ever want that dreadful Janice girl? Have you seen her teeth?"
If the dog in front of you is genuinely worth reproducing, you should never start a sentence with "I know he's not like those show dogs, but…" or "I know he isn't as hard-driving in the field as the dogs I saw last week, but…" or "I know he can't track like a Shepherd, but…" or "I know his topline is terrible, but…"
Those are pretty sure statements that you know you shouldn't be breeding this dog. Every dog has faults, but your first thought needs to be "I am so THRILLED with the looks/performance/conformation/drive of this dog; he's the best I've ever seen (in hopefully at least one characteristic) and I've seen a lot."
Do you have a plan and criteria for success?
If you decide that you really do have something – if your dog can do something uniquely well because of this characteristic, and his strength is not available commonly – then you have to have a plan not only for perpetuating that strength but for rejecting those offspring who don't share it.
You need to identify if the strength you see in your dog is actually going to be reproducible – was it in his parents? His grandparents? If not, he's unlikely to have kids who share it. Can you find this or a very similar strength in a similarly well-bred partner? If not, you're going to be stuck breeding him and then breeding him back to his daughter, and I think that's a great way to wreck a breeding program even before it begins.
How will you test this strength in front of your peers? How will you identify it reliably in the real world? What tasks will you be asking your dog's offspring to do, keeping in mind that in order to keep going they have to be able to do whatever it is BETTER than the purebreds that don't share this unique feature?
Do you have a way to place the many puppies you'll produce who don't have the desired characteristic, and are they going to be sound enough to produce with good conscience?
Do you have the support of your peers – do others agree that this really is an improvement, and are they willing to partner with you and willing to test their own dogs on the same scale?
Isn't this sort of a victimless crime? Shouldn't we be glad that people are proud of their dogs and want a better label than poorly bred?
Here's what prompted this post: A person who runs a site celebrating a breed that we all know and love posted a picture of a dog from the 1930s.
The response to his picture was HUGE, and it was overwhelmingly of this type: "Wow, I thought my dog was a mix, but now I know he's just of the genuine old style!" "Wow, that dog is just like mine!" "Oh, goodness, I saw a dog just like him last year and he had a great temperament too!" "I used to worry that my dog didn't look anything like the dogs in the show ring, but this shows me that they're perfect!" and, my favorite, "Goes to show that a XX is an XX, no matter what he looks like!"
None of those people actually had either "throwback" or 1930s style dogs or field-bred dogs or working dogs. They had pet store dogs, puppy mill dogs, backyard bred dogs, and a few (thankfully) have rescue dogs. What worries me a great deal is that, given a response like that, both those people and a bunch of people reading the response (and seeing the fantastic reception given to dogs who look nothing like the standard) will think, when they see the breed for sale somewhere in the Wal-Mart parking lot or on ebay classifieds, that because it looks nothing like the dogs they'd seen on TV it is actually BETTER. It's truer. It's older. It's more antique or genuine. And they'll tell everybody they know how awesome it is that they were able to get an authentic whatever instead of those doofy-looking dogs at Westminster.
It's a victimless crime when it comes to the humans involved – self-deception is nothing new. It's a TERRIBLE crime when it comes to creating a market for badly bred dogs.
If you want to get a field-bred cocker spaniel, whose breeders are actually working the dogs, and in so doing you also get less coat, that's FANTASTIC. You do NOT have to get a show dog to support a good breeder. But a field-dog breeder is ALSO not breeding "throwbacks"; she's breeding dogs whose qualities are up front and in the last generation, not looking for something from 50 years ago to randomly pop up in a litter.