Meet Deke: the stunning English black lab ‘cover dog” you probably know as the Ducks Unlimited mascot. Deke is a “Gentleman’s Gun Dog” bred and trained by Mike Stewart, owner of Wildrose Kennels, one of the world’s most renowned breeder/trainers of English Lab hunting dogs. Using his trademarked, “cyclical training” technique, The Wildrose Way—which avoids things like shock collars and negative reinforcement—he produces some of the most intelligent, well behaved, adventure-capable hunting and lifestyle companions on the planet. As a result, his Gentleman’s Gun Dogs are pre-ordered before they’re bred and “finished dogs” fetch (hah!) between $10,000 and $15,000 each. If that sounds like a lot of money for an adventure companion, consider that Wildrose currently has a two-year waiting list and a client roster that includes a senior editor for Outside and the former president of Delta Airlines.
We asked Mike what makes a hunting dog worth as much as a Harley and what goes into training a dog in the Wildrose Way.
“Well, not unlike buying a Harley, a Gentleman’s Gun Dog is a lifestyle choice,” says Stewart. “When it’s something you really care about, you want the best of the best.”
Wildrose labs come from a purebred line now in its fourth generation. But good genes are just the start.
“Dogs aren’t great generalists,” says Stewart. “They perform much better when they specialize. So we start out by talking to the client to determine what they want from a dog and what kinds of activities they do. Then we match them to a specific litter. Once the pup is born, it starts a very defined learning track based on their intended specialty, whether that’s upland waterfowl hunting, mountain biking, or whatever.”
Wildrose has a team of a dozen trainers with different specialties and three separate training facilities for different types of dogs. The team headquarters in Oxford, Mississippi features 143 groomed acres of fields, ponds, and woodland dedicated to training. They also have river hunting facilities in Jasper, Arkansas; and 580 scenic acres at Clear Creek Ranch in Colorado for teaching mountain skills. Overall, the process to get a finished Gentleman’s Gun Dog takes 18 to 24 months. Owners also go through a brief training session to learn how to direct and interact with their new companions.
When pressed for the secret to the success of his non-corporeal technique, Stewart replies: “Usually when there’s a behavior issue or you’re not getting the response you want from your dog, it’s because you’re failing to understand things from their point of view. That’s the key: Understanding how they see the world.”