Mike Stewart has always been a dog person. In fact, he jokes that he likes dog a lot better than people.
Stewart is a very confident man. He is confident in his program and his dogs. He talks about the dogs as if they are his children or his closest friends. He points out their little quirks and things he likes in their personality. Deke and Indian, two of his personal Labrador Retrievers, move with precision at his every command.
Stewart said no favorite dog in particular led him to where he is today.
“That’s like telling your mom to pick out her favorite kid. I don’t have one favorite, but I’ve had loads of friends.”
Stewart is a native to Oxford. He attended Oxford High School and Ole Miss, where he majored in public administration and received a masters in criminal justice. Following graduation, he worked for the Oxford Police Department before becoming the chief of police at the University. While working as a policeman, Stewart trained dogs on the side as a hobby.
Stewart learned the art of training from different people and sources over time. He read books, studied the techniques of Irish and British trainers and soaked up his own experiences.
This hobby eventually outgrew his backyard and grew into a major career.
“The dogs were noisy with the neighbors,” Stewart said. “I would have to go somewhere every night to train them.”
He was training bird dogs that had large amounts of energy and needed a space to run. In 1988, he bought 143 acres of land about 12 miles outside of Oxford to expand his hobby. With that purchase came the very early stages of what would become his enterprise, Wildrose Kennels. In 2000, after 25 years of policing, he left his career for a new one— this one with four-leggers to discipline instead of the bipeds to which he was accustomed.
“There’s not much difference in a dog and a fraternity member,” Stewart said. “They’re all creatures of habit. If you don’t build boundaries and limitations they go astray.”
Stewart explained that he gives his canine trainees limitations and rewards the dogs when they follow the rules. “That’s sort of how I handled the fraternities too,” Stewart said.
Stewart is now considered one of the best dog breeders and trainers in the world. He has created his own method of training Labrador Retrievers, which he calls the “Wildrose Way.” He has been featured in Forbes Magazine, Garden & Gun and Town and Country. Wildrose Kennels has been chosen twice for Garden & Gun’s “Best in the Sporting South” award.
Labrador retreivers at Wildrose can receive three different types of training: “Gentleman’s Gundog” training, Adventure Dog training, and Scent Discriminators training. Training with Stewart begins when the dogs are only 3 days old. Stewart trains and breeds imported English Labradors, believing their genetics and smaller frame better-suited to field work than American Labradors.
The “Gentleman’s Gundog” is a term penned and trademarked by Stewart. This includes extensive training with upland and waterfowl hunting, as well as the dogs’ temperaments and loyalty.
Adventure Dogs are trained for multiple sporting activities: hiking, camping, kayaking, mountain biking, etc. Stewart calls the adventure dogs the “Land Rovers of dogs.”
“We teach them 14 different skill sets,” Stewart said. “The dogs are then classified one of three ways: Trail-rated, certified adventure dog, or master trekker.”
Through the intensive training of the Scent Discriminators program, Wildrose Labs become candidates for Diabetic Alert Dogs. They are able to notice when a diabetic person’s blood sugar levels are dangerously low by merely smelling their breath.
Stewart said the Labradors from Wildrose have gone on to do various types of jobs that they did not specifically learn there.
“There’s a fantastic cadaver dog in Memphis,” Stewart said. “That dog has been able to find bodies that no one else could.”
Not only that, but there are avalanche dogs in the West that are able to find bodies buried in the snow using scent.
Wildrose now has four different training facilities with 143 acres in Oxford, 140 acres in the Delta, 40 acres in Arkansas with a river for special training, and 580 acres in Colorado.
Stewart has a map on a wall in his office with pins proudly showing the location of every Wildrose Labrador in the world.
By 2006, there was a Wildrose Labrador in all 50 states in the United States, as well as in Mexico and every Canadian province. There are now also Wildrose dogs in Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Taiwan.