By Hunter Cloud
Photos by Joey Brent and Bruce Newman
There’s something special about a Wildrose dog.
The award-winning British Labradors are known as the gentleman’s gundog, and it is a combination of breeding; training; and culture that produces the coveted Wildrose pus.
Wildrose Mississippi owner Tom Smith said for 50 years, the dogs bred and trained at Wildrose kennels have ghosted a legendary reputation. When someone sees a Wildrose dog work, they want one, he said.
And for individuals or families lucky enough to own a Wildrose dog, the experience is one for a lifetime.
The experience starts well before puppy pickup day. Clients can be as specific as they want in seeking puppies, from litters bred from award-winning hunting dogs to companion dogs for families. “We have a little bit of everything and the availability depends on when the girls come in heat. It just varies,” Smith said.
Wildrose is one of the few kennels that requires owners to pick up puppies in person. Once on site, owners and puppies are introduced and have the opportunity to get to know each other in the Wildrose setting.
Training continues at Wildrose and the length and type of training depend on the owner’s plans.
Wildrose dogs are trained in three different types of services.
One is an upland and waterfowl bird dog.. He can go on a morning duck hunt, a midday quail or dove hunt and at night chill with the owner on the sofa watching TV.
The second dog is one who can accompany their owner on adventures into the woods, down hiking trails and on water.
Wildrose’s third dog is a service dog who can be companions for nursing homes, wounded veterans and others. This service dog started with Mike Stewart training diabetic alert dogs in 2008.
All of these dogs are more than an animal trained to carry out a service. They are there to be a companion for their owners, which can be a change from the old culture of hunting dogs kept outside. “It is a culture I grew up in. We didn’t keep a hunting dog inside,” Stewart said. “I trained dogs for folks to be companions. Wildrose dogs are a British lab who have the temperament in the dog I want.”
And because of that temperament, the Wildrose team is able to train differently and produce a companion and a competitor for families. “We don’t use electric collars or force train them. We build dogs through habit formation and consistency,” Smith said.
Trainer Blake Henderson started working with dogs 16 years ago at Wildrose. He said one of the things which makes a Wildrose dog special is the temperament of the dogs. They are a British dog with the males typically 60-65 pounds and females 50-55 pounds.
Wildrose does not use electric collars or force to train the dogs. Instead, trainers use a positive system with repetition and patience. Henderson said Wildrose starts training the dogs at seven months of age full bird dog training can take up to six months.
Henderson said they teach the dogs how to retrieve with hold conditioning.
“With them retrieving it is a natural instinct, but the dog bringing a bird back to the person is man-made,” Henderson said.
Each dog stays with one trainer the entire time. This allows one trainer to update the client. “Dogs are here for the whole six months of training. We encourage the clients to visit. They can check up on the dogs and learn some of the drills to work with the dogs,” Henderson said. “You still have to work with them at home to maintain everything.”
He quipped that sometimes it can be harder to train the owner. Dog training is a process of repetition, and it is the same for the owner when they work with their dog. He tries to get owners to understand the importance of training and to keep working on it to develop muscle memory.
Owners working with their dogs at home have to remember to be calm and cool because the dog will respond better, he said. At the end of their training period, he jots down tasks for the dog and the handlers as homework.
He said the dogs already know what to do, it is just about getting the dog to carry out what you want them to do and when you want them to do it.
The Wildrose way of positive training is a break from the traditional force training, which applies pressure to the dogs. Those dogs learn to grab on to the bird and turn the pressure off when the owner pinches its ear.
Because dogs already naturally want to grab things and bring them back, there is no sense to force them to do something they naturally do, Henderson said.
“The dog wants to please me and do what I want him to do. It is a step of control you have with your dog. You get respect in that process without any negative mindsets,” he said. “In the dog’s mindset I want to be Number 1. Them getting ducks or birds is second. All the respect is for me. When he goes back to me with the bird, it is my bird. When you see it click … You know you did it.”
Henderson started learning the Wildrose way with an apprenticeship under Stewart 16 years ago. Similar to the dogs, he started off with the first steps of training and built up. The process is laid out in their book, The Wildrose Way.
One of his favorite things to do is to take some of the old school drills and use Wildrose’s methodology to modify the concept. This allows him to think outside of the box. Dog training is all about problem solving because each dog is different.
Henderson said they mostly use frozen birds, shotgun shells and shotguns to train the dogs. He added Stewart told him to never trust a clean dog trainer because to work with the dogs you have to get down and dirty. Henderson reckons he has covered nearly every square inch of Wildrose Mississippi in his training of dogs.
“I try to find something new. I think I would have trained close to a couple hundred dogs here,” he said.
The most rewarding part of working with the dogs is seeing how happy the clients are with the dogs at the end of training.
“When you send the dog home you want to blow their mind away,” he said. “They can see everything put together. It is fun to astonish the owner. I look for the best of the best in every dog. You don’t always get it but you strive for it. I want mine to be the best. When they go out, I want their buddies to ask who trained them.”
Word of mouth has been one of the best advertisements for Wildrose. It is how Ole Miss head football Coach Lane Kiffin ended up with a Wildrose Puppy named Juice.
Smith said Kiffin’s daughter wanted a puppy and learned about Wildrose Mississippi. Kiffin talked to his staff and some of them knew Smith. Kiffin came out to Wildrose one day and picked up a puppy the next day, Henderson said.
Juice Kiffiin has become a social media star, amassing more than 20,000 followers on Twitter and finding his place on the team.
Now, Smith teaches Kiffin how to train his dog every single morning. “I think Lane is really enjoying it. It has turned out really good,” Smith said. “He has been great to work with and you couldn’t ask for a better guy to work with. He has let me do what I needed to do to get Juice trained. Lane isn’t a hunter but he wants a solid companion. We hope to have Juice on the sidelines this year so we are working on obedience. He is coming along nicely.”