Finding ‘The Way'

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PHOTO BY: DWAYNE BRATCHER/@DWAYNEBRATCHER

Embracing Wildrose Kennels’ ‘dogs of duality’

Lab people are just different. On one hand you have the waterfowlers, living to chase ducks and geese in any kind of weather. On another you have the upland hunters, thrilling to roust birds from thick and nasty cover. Then there are the competitors, specializing in field trials and hunt tests. And don’t forget the pickers-up, gathering the day’s bag at driven shoots.

Their dogs are different too. Not only do they come in a variety of colors—black, yellow, chocolate and red—but also different types: stout and stocky British Labs and long and lanky American Labs. There are even some that point.

But regardless of the color or type they prefer or the activities they enjoy, one thing all Lab people have in common is a passion for their dogs. It’s why the Lab was the most popular breed in the US for 30 years running—only recently having been dethroned by the French bulldog of all things . . . .

I didn’t grow up a Lab person. When I was a kid, my family had an Irish setter and two English cockers, none of which hunted. And when I finally got into gundogs, I opted for do-all versatile breeds: a wirehaired pointing griffon and then a Deutsch Drahthaar. It wasn’t that I disliked Labradors; it’s just that I thought of them as one-trick ponies—specializing in either upland hunting or waterfowling. Plus I preferred pointing dogs.

That all changed at the 2022 Dallas Safari Club Convention when I met the most stunning redhead I had ever seen. “His name is Mattis,” owner Tom Smith said of the fox-red Lab perched on the elevated platform. “You can pet him.” And that’s all it took. For the remainder of the show, every time I passed Wildrose Kennels’ booth I was drawn in to visit with the dogs and trainers. I had been familiar with Wildrose’s reputation as a premier breeder of British Labs, but I had never seen the kennel’s dogs. They were different. I was impressed with not only their medium size and good looks but also their obedient and calm manner. Kennel founder Mike Stewart was happy to answer my questions and assure me that one of his dogs would be a great performer in both the field and the water as well as a loving companion at home. I left the show with my name on the waiting list for a red female pup.

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The author’s girlfriend, Trina French, with the family’s new addition: Wildrose Ruby Diamond. (Author's photo)

When I arrived home, I decided to do my due diligence and began researching Wildrose. The story of the kennel turns out to be an interesting one.

It starts when Mike Stewart was a boy, growing up on a farm in Oxford, Mississippi. His father trained Tennessee Walking Horses, and Mike took care of the family’s string of bird dogs—pointers and setters for hunting quail. The young Stewart developed a passion for dog training, and in his early teens he started a business training pointing-dog pups to “Whoa” and hold point and doing lead work. In high school he began running squirrel dogs, and at 15 he trained a German shepherd in agility and protection. As wild-quail numbers declined, duck hunting became more popular, and Stewart began training retrievers—including his first Lab, Pepper, in 1972. In the 1980s his interests shifted again and he began breeding, training and trialing beagles.

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From a young age, Wildrose dogs are exposed to a variety of sounds, smells and situations. (Photo by Dwayne Bratcher/@dwaynebratcher)

He did all of this while working “real” jobs, including a stint in the Navy, seven years with the Oxford Police Department, and as the Chief of Police at the University of Mississippi (aka Ole Miss).

In 1988, perhaps sensing that one day he might parlay his passion for dog training into his vocation, Stewart purchased a 143-acre haying operation 12 miles east of Oxford. He began using the property as his training grounds and adding features and facilities to make it more conducive for working dogs.

More and more Stewart found himself training different sporting breeds, including retrievers, setters and Vizslas, as well as large-breed dogs for obedience. One day he was approached by a well-heeled gentleman from Nashville to train a setter and a retriever to work in tandem for quail hunting. When the client arrived to pick up his dogs, he found that they not only were working well together but also were calm and obedient. He turned to Stewart and said, “Mike, what you’re doing here is training gentlemen’s gundogs.”

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Kennel founder Mike Stewart (left) and Wildrose Mississippi owner Tom Smith flank Stewart’s dog, Pappy. (Author's photo)

That was when the light bulb went on and Stewart realized that that was exactly what he was doing—and what he wanted to do going forward. Further to that, Stewart was impressed with the client’s appearance: dressed in proper shooting attire, complete with a shooting coat and a wide-brimmed hat. So the image of a gentleman and his dogs became the vision behind Stewart’s way of training.

Unbeknownst to Stewart, in 1972, about an hour north of Oxford in Grand Junction, Tennessee, a gentleman named Robert Milner had established Wildrose Kennels. Milner was importing Labs from the UK and eventually began crossing them with American Labs to create biddable dogs for duck hunting. In the early ’90s he sold the business to Ed Apple, who converted the lines to 100-percent British and Irish genetics.

In 1999 Stewart began getting in some young Wildrose dogs for training. He liked their smaller size and that they were calm and biddable—fitting right in with his no-e-collar, no-force method of training. When he learned that the kennel was going out of business, he headed to Grand Junction and bought the entire company, including its remaining dogs, and moved everything to Oxford.

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Wildrose Labs have natural game-finding abilities and calm, biddable temperaments. (Photo by Aaron Davis/@aaronrdavis)

This was the impetus Stewart had been waiting for, and in January 2000 he retired after having served as Chief of Police at Ole Miss for 18 years.

That is when Wildrose really took off. Stewart decided that he wanted to create more than a business; he wanted to build a lifestyle brand—one with a dedicated “pack” of followers. He trademarked the logo of a Labrador puppy with a bumper dangling from its mouth: the Gentleman’s Gundog.

As for the dogs themselves, he recognized that a lot of wingshooters were buying “performance” Labs that were too much for them to handle, so he set out to produce dogs with the “right stuff”: British Labs of reasonable size with natural game-finding abilities and calm, biddable temperaments. Dogs that performed in the field and were enjoyable companions in the home. “Dogs of duality,” as he called them.

He began importing titled sires from Ireland and the UK with the help of Irish trainer and breeder Nigel Carville of Astraglen Kennels. Wildrose became a closed kennel—breeding only dogs it raised or imported and training only dogs from its bloodlines. This allowed for improved genetics through health testing and carefully selected pairings, and then getting feedback by training the dogs produced. Today the results are evident in the kennel’s heritage lines—some of which are in their fourth generation.

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(Author's photo)

Stewart was obviously spot-on with his target market, as since that time Wildrose has enjoyed meteoric growth. The kennel’s Labs can be found in all 50 states, every Canadian province, Mexico and about a dozen other countries. Two Wildrose dogs (Drake and Deke) were Ducks Unlimited mascots and another (Juice) is currently the unofficial mascot of Ole Miss.

The facilities have expanded, as well, and today there are licensed, full-service kennels in Oxford (Wildrose Mississippi); Dallas (Wildrose Texas); Mobane, North Carolina (Wildrose Carolinas); and Sheboygan, Wisconsin (Wildrose Midwest). There are seasonal training facilities along the Little Buffalo River in Jasper, Arkansas (Wildrose Ozarks), and at Clear Creek Ranch, in Granite, Colorado (Wildrose Colorado).

Recognizing that not everyone hunts with their Labs, training programs have grown to include those for Adventure Dogs (controllable family dogs prepared to go anywhere, anytime, under any conditions) and Therapy Companions (dogs that might be used for service, detection and alerting).

In 2022 Wildrose Kennels celebrated its 50th anniversary, and the future is only looking brighter.

In February 2023—13 months after I’d joined the waiting list—I received news that a litter of three red females had been born and that I had first pick. Not only that, but Mattis, the dog I had fallen for in Dallas, was the sire.

Seven weeks later I drove from Maine to Mississippi, and then headed east out of Oxford, following directions to a nondescript secondary road and eventually the Wildrose entrance. If it hadn’t been for the wrought-iron logo out front, I might have thought I’d stumbled onto a country club—the fields along the drive being manicured like fairways—but before long I spotted a pond dotted with decoys and could see kennels in the distance.

In the parking lot I was met by Tom Smith, who bought Wildrose Mississippi from Mike Stewart in 2019. Stewart still lives on the property and serves as the president of Wildrose International, the entity he co-founded with his wife, Cathy, that oversees all of the regional locations and ensures that the standards of the brand are being maintained.

After introducing me to a couple of trainers and some of the dogs waiting patiently in their kennels, Smith took me for a tour of the grounds. They were inspiring. At every turn was a feature designed for training. From fields planted to row crops to ponds edged with blinds and various decoy setups to a series of ramps and elevated walkways, the place looked like a cross between the ultimate dog park and a Spartan Race obstacle course. I remember thinking, If there were a dog heaven on Earth, this would be it.

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A hard-charging dog displays focus and drive. (Photo by Aaron Davis/@aaronrdavis)

When I asked about a conspicuous section of culvert pipe, Smith explained that a group had been hunting in South Dakota and that a dog had balked at entering a culvert to retrieve a pheasant. Now they train for that. He said the grounds are always evolving to address any situation a dog may experience.

But perhaps the most impressive feature was an aviary containing a couple of hundred pigeons. Dogs taken into it are expected to stay focused and obey commands despite the Hitchcockian melee of flapping wings that surrounds them. It is the ultimate test of control.

Returning to the main compound, Smith showed me through the three open-air kennel buildings—all of which were immaculate. Each kennel had a house and a sand floor (easier on dogs’ elbows than cement). At the time there were about 100 dogs on the property, half of which were client dogs in for training.

We took a spin through the pro shop, chock-full of training supplies and Wildrose merchandise, and proceeded down the hill to the healthcare facility. This building is where the dogs are lovingly cared for and where puppies go through the Super Learner Program—a sensory-tactile experience imprinting them with smells and sounds and introducing them to various household items. The Super Learner Center is the specific room where the pups romp and socialize while getting used to objects like skateboards, rubber balls and small see-saws.

Smith’s office is in the same building, so we retired to it to talk about his involvement with Wildrose. It turns out that he didn’t grow up a retriever person either. When he was young, he enjoyed hunting deer, rabbits and squirrels and owned beagles. It wasn’t until he was in the Army and stationed in Alaska that he got into duck hunting, and after leaving the military he bought his first Lab—a “meat dog” who was great in spite of Smith’s training efforts. He began watching Ducks Unlimited’s TV show “The World of Ducks,” in which Mike Stewart was training DU’s mascot, Drake, in weekly segments. Smith liked Stewart’s method of bringing out a dog’s natural abilities using positive-reinforcement techniques—what came to be known as “The Wildrose Way”—so when his dog passed, he got on the list for a Wildrose pup. He traveled to Mississippi to pick up Dixie and was hooked. “I kind of fell in love with the place,” he said. “I fell in love with Oxford, Mike and Cathy, and the staff here. And I knew what I wanted to do.” That was in 2008.

Smith began training with Stewart at every opportunity, and in 2010 he became an associate trainer. That same year he bought the house and property next to Wildrose. He sold his industrial construction company and in 2014 joined the staff full-time as the general manager. These days, as the president/owner, he oversees 12 full-time and 10 part-time employees, takes care of the grounds, trains a string of dogs, travels to shows and training events around the country, and even gets to hunt a little. 

When I asked him about plans for the future, he said, “The main thing we have to do is maintain the integrity of the brand. We have to make sure that the dogs are well taken care of. We’re always trying to innovate, and we’re always looking for new activities to do with our clients, like seminars and hunts, to include them as part of the pack.”

That evening I picked up my girlfriend, Trina French, at the Memphis airport, and the following morning we returned to Wildrose for puppy-picking day. There we were joined by Smith, Mike Stewart and a couple from Florida who were getting their third Wildrose dog. (The litter’s remaining pup was going to a Wildrose trainer.) Following a tour of the grounds that included an impressive performance by a young dog in the pigeon aviary, we were given demonstrations of waterwork and obedience training. Then we were ushered into a classroom in the rear of the pro shop for a crash course in the care and feeding of puppies and The Wildrose Way. Our “diploma” was a pushpin that we got to stick in a large wall map showing the locations of every Wildrose dog and kennel in North America.

The next stop was the Super Learner Center for the big event: puppy picking! Seeing as we were first up, Trina hopped the short picket fence and sat in the middle of the floor while the three little “girls” frolicked around her. It took about 30 seconds for one to cautiously approach and climb into her lap. And just like that we had our little bundle of joy: Wildrose Ruby Diamond.

Once everyone had made their choices, we headed outside for family photos—ours including Mattis and Ruby’s dam, June—and a final visit to the pro shop for training supplies and some Wildrose gear.

On the drive home Trina and I talked about our experience and how impressed we’d been with the people, the grounds, the facilities and of course the dogs. Everyone had seemed genuinely excited for us to begin our journey and offered whatever assistance we needed. It felt like we’d done more than simply pick up a puppy; we’d been welcomed into a family—a pack, if you will. We were happy to have found The Wildrose Way, and we knew that our lives would never be the same. 

For more information on Wildrose Kennels, visit uklabs.com.

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2 Comments

  1. says: Peter Harris

    What a lovely article , well written Ralph Stuart , it read like I was there with you. A thoroughly enjoyable read .

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