Leader of the Pack

Andy Anderson
by Donovan Webster - Mississippi - Dec 2011/Jan 2012

Mike Stewart has turned the world of gun dog training upside down

>See photos from this story

It’s a sunny autumn morning, and Mike Stewart is walking across the precisely trimmed grass at his Wildrose Kennels, a dozen miles east of Oxford, Mississippi, where a year-old black Lab, Aggie, waits for him to return.

Stewart is tall, lean, and sometimes laconic or direct in his manner. He is also widely acknowledged as one of the best dog breeders and trainers in the world. And—aside from possessing a patience with canines few others will ever develop—he has created a system for training Labrador retrievers few can imitate. Fifteen minutes earlier, he and some of his staff were working with a handful of year-old Labs in training. They had been using a live pigeon to test the dogs’ ability to remain steady in the face of feather-filled distraction. The bird fluttered past their snouts, over and over. None of the dogs budged. They saw the pigeon, yet they didn’t move.

Then Stewart summoned all of the dogs but Aggie (whom he neglected to call) and walked them back to their pens. He was gone for some time. During this period, Aggie watched him walk away, but she didn’t get agitated—or even move. Her eyebrows didn’t begin that “I’m concerned” up-and-down semaphore dogs use. She simply, patiently waited. 

As Stewart returns with two “finished” Wildrose Labs—Deke and Booch—who are slated to do some review work at a nearby pond in heavy downed timber, he sees his oversight, and is embarrassed about leaving Aggie still sitting on the lawn.

“I just forgot her,” he says, walking over to the dog. Then he invites Aggie to stand, and scratches her behind the ears. “She’s a good dog,” he says. “And she’s going to become a great dog.”

The Top Dog
This is the root source of Wildrose Kennels. This is “the Wildrose Way,” a training technique Mike Stewart not only pioneered in the 1970s but also has been wise enough to trademark. Using a pure English Lab line of heredity and a “Cyclical” training model that Stewart developed and loves to talk about, Wildrose—without employing typical dog-school tools like shock collars and negative reinforcement—produces among the best-behaved “gentlemen’s gun dogs” in the world.