Owner looks back on 50 years of dog training history
By Hunter Cloud
Photos by Joey Brent and Bruce Newman
Owner Mike Stewart says the Wildrose International story is “a journey across trails.”
Stewart’s trail started on a farm in Lafayette County. Stewart’s father was a part-time insurance salesman who trained Tennessee Walkers and ran a horse stable. Everyone had a job to do back then, and Stewart was tasked with training the family’s bird dogs.
“I liked the dogs and taking care of them. We quail hunted back then and I started training the dogs as soon as I could,” Stewart said. “The experience got me interested in dogs. People would ask me if I was going to be a horse trainer like my father. I told them ‘No, I will be a dog trainer.’”
Stewart is a former Oxford police officer and chief of the University of Mississippi police department. He started training dogs in 1972 as a part-time business. Eventually, he ran out of room to train and in 1988 purchased an 147-acre pasture outside of Oxford.
As Stewart kicked off his part time business in 1972, Robert Milner started his Wildrose Kennel in Grand Junction, Tennessee. Milner bred American labs with British labs to create a well-mannered hunting companion. Ed Apple bought the business from Milner in the early 1990s and worked to improve the quality of dogs, transitioning to a 100 percent British lab bloodline.
In 1999, Stewart purchased the Wildrose Dog Kennel business from Ed Apple and merged it with his training program, creating the Wildrose British Lab breed known as a gentleman’s gundog. By 2000, he retired from the Ole Miss Police Chief role and became a full time dog trainer.
Piece by piece
Many pieces came together to complete the puzzle over the years. One of the biggest pieces came in 2001, when Wildrose’s brand went from being regionally known to nationally known.
Then, Ducks Unlimited asked Stewart to train a company mascot for the television show “The World of Ducks” and other public appearances and demonstrations. He began to train Drake step by step and week by week.
The episodes ran consecutively for eight years and then the TV crews followed Drake’s son, Deke. Stewart said it is the longest running training series he’s seen.
“We are very fortunate it brought a lot of attention,” he said. “Ninety nine percent of it was filmed in Oxford. In advertisements you do not want to be forgotten. Three-minute segments each week made sure we were not and people still follow them.”
In 2003, Wildrose built a facility in Jasper, Arkansas, along the Little Buffalo River to introduce dogs to quick and rapid water. In 2008, Stewart opened another facility in Granite, Colorado, at Clear Creek Ranch to train adventure dogs.
Wildrose’s next puzzle piece came in 2009 with a call from a writer for Forbes magazine. He was researching for a story about recession-proof businesses and he interviewed Stewart and the Wildrose team. That landed the company on the cover of and they landed on the cover of Forbes magazine.
Stewart said it was something he could have never imagined as a boy, and the story generated so much interest he had to add more phone lines and staffing to handle the inquiries.
“We have survived a few recessions, and we do well in recessions. We are doing well right now,” Stewart said. “People cut back in certain areas, but they can still afford a dog for a family … People who have dogs spend a lot of money on the dogs. People take care of them.”
In 2017, the company added regional facilities in Dallas, Texas, at the Dallas Hunting and Fishing Club, established in 1885, and Mebane, North Carolina, near Raleigh,. By 2022, Wildrose added another facility in Kohler, Wisconsin.
Stewart’s wife Cathy was a professor at Ole Miss when the business started to take off. Now retired, she works full time as his office manager.
“She was a good networker. We have a trailing list of clients that goes back 20 something years,” he said. “She helps me run this company now. We do the oversight of the company. Back then, we would produce the puppies. She would sell them and schedule everything and I would train them . There is no way we would be where we are with Wildrose without her on the phones. It was tough sometimes.”