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.

Wildrose has also, in recent years, branched out from hunting Labs. It now also trains “adventure dogs”: calm, knowledgeable dogs that are game for such various undertakings as snowshoeing, camping, boating, and polite companionship when you take one to your office or a restaurant.

In the last two years, the kennels have also started training Wild-rose Labs as “diabetic dogs,” since in addition to their affability, the dogs’ good noses allow them to pick up on the change in a diabetic human’s breath as the person descends into potentially dangerous low blood sugar, alerting the master of the impending problem.

“Fully finished” Wildrose dogs aren’t cheap; they run from $10,000 to $15,000, depending on their skill sets. And so you have to ask yourself: Is any dog worth that?

Still, as testimony to the dogs and their abilities, Stewart’s list of repeat customers is long and impressive. It includes Richard Adkerson, CEO of the mining giant Freeport-McMoran; Steve Reynolds, CEO of Baptist Hospital Systems; and John Newman, president of Ducks Unlimited.

Stewart and his wife, Cathy, plus a staff of about a dozen, work at Wildrose Kennels’ home base, 143 well-tended acres of field, ponds, and timber east of Oxford. They also have training facilities in Arkansas, and access to 580 acres of gorgeous Clear Creek Ranch in Colorado, where they teach adult dogs higher-altitude skills. Beyond that, they maintain several partnership facilities in the United Kingdom, where the Wildrose bloodline originated.

“I’m a retired cop,” Stewart says, as he walks me toward a line of kennels on the property. “Seven years with the Oxford, Mississippi, police department, then eighteen as chief of police at Ole Miss. But I’ve been piddling around training dogs as long as I can remember. I’ve always loved dogs—and training them. I trained my first Lab, Pepper, in 1972. Sold her in 1973. Great dog.”

As we walk across the grounds in the late afternoon, Stewart stops walking for a moment and crosses his arms over his chest, his right hand clutching his elbow. He smiles. You can tell, simply by the look on Stewart’s face: Pepper was a great dog.

Fieldwork Done Right
We walk up to several of the kennels, where the line of penned Labs—without barking—stand and watch, their coats shiny in the shade, their demeanors as tensely optimistic as beauty queens hoping to be picked.

“All our kennels are a little bit round,” Stewart says. “Because nature is rarely in a straight line. Also, they have sand floors. Which is much easier on the dogs’ elbows and other parts of their bodies than concrete floors.”

He introduces me to several dogs, including the black Lab named Deke, who is the Ducks Unlimited mascot and a Wildrose favorite, and others named Indian and Ben, but ends up in front of the one-year-old Aggie’s kennel. Stewart swings open that pen’s door, and the dog walks to the open door and then stands still inside, patiently waiting.

“My technique,” Stewart says, “is something I call Cyclical Training. The dog has to be invited out—Aggie, come—and with every command, you say the dog’s name. That way, you can have several dogs in a duck blind, say, and after taking a bird you can call one of their names and set it loose and the others will stay.”

After asking the dog out of its kennel, Stewart begins what he calls “the Ramp-Up.” It starts with a slow walk with the dog at left heel for a few minutes (with several stops, directed by the handler, not the dog), then a faster walk. Then, after five or ten minutes, the dog and handler get to it. An initial part of that is a critical step Stewart calls “Denial and Delay” or “Memory Work”: a stage when the dog senses something   fun is about to happen, but then this step is withheld for a short period.

We are now standing in the middle of a field, a few hundred yards from the kennels. Aggie is ready and waiting. Stewart fires a training bumper into the woods nearby. Aggie watches the bumper fly, but doesn’t move from Stewart’s side. But instead of sending Aggie to retrieve the bumper, Stewart turns from where the bumper landed in the forest, and walks in the other direction.

“Aggie…heel,” Stewart tells the dog as he begins to walk. (“It’s important to look the dog in the eyes for three seconds when you give it a command, too,” he’ll later tell me.) Aggie stays with him as they walk away from the bumper. Finally, thirty or so paces later, Stewart lifts his Acme training whistle, which hangs on a lanyard around his neck. He turns to face the woods where the bumper landed. Aggie turns, too.

He looks the Lab in her eyes. “Aggie,” Stewart says.

The dog rockets away from him toward the bumper, and Stewart places the whistle in his mouth—blowing a quick peeeep—about the time the dog is halfway there. Aggie stops in her tracks, in the tall grass, waiting. Five seconds pass.

“Aggie,” Stewart says again. The dog streaks into the timber, retrieving the bumper and bringing it directly back to Stewart, who rewards her with praise and some scratches behind the ears and under the chin.

“That’s a good dog, you are a good dog,” Stewart says.