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Four-legged cure for recession blues

By Monte Burke, Forbes
April 02, 2009 09:22 IST
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William Behnke bought a black male English Labrador retriever named Ghillie from Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Miss. three years ago. A business developer at GCI, an Alaskan telecom company, Behnke has hunted with Ghillie for pheasant in Montana, quail in Texas and ducks in his home state. He also brings the dog to his office in an Anchorage high-rise; together they attend business meetings and visit vendors.

"He flies well, too, even in helicopters," says Behnke, who has never resorted to using a leash or a collar with Ghillie. So taken is Behnke that he plans to fork over $12,000 for another Wildrose pooch named Opus, a male black Lab born in February. "I can't imagine being without dogs, and I can't imagine having dogs that are not well trained," he says. "Wildrose has given me both of those things."

Mike H. Stewart, 54, is Wildrose's owner and head trainer. A tall, tanned former chief of police at nearby University of Mississippi ("College kids are just like dogs: They learn best from repetition and consistency," he quips), Stewart has trained canines for 30 years. In 1999 he bought the business, then in liquidation, for a pittance. Now it's bringing in $1 million a year in revenue.

Wildrose deals only in English sporting Labradors, in black, yellow, chocolate and fox red (a darker shade of yellow). Stewart aims for what he calls "the 365 dog" -- patient and obedient in the field, loving and playful at home. It's an unusual combo for a hunting dog, hence the demand. The backlog for new pups is 210 names deep, enough to keep this operation busy until 2010, and it is growing. Orders for Wildrose puppies have climbed to 45 per month; most deliveries take place in the spring and fall.

Prices range from $1,275 for a black, yellow or fox red to $1,500 for a chocolate (the rarest type). Stewart also sells what he calls "finished" dogs -- those that have lived and trained at Wildrose for two to three years and have hunted 1,000-plus fallen birds. He has already sold out this year's allotment of 15 finished dogs and is taking orders for next year, at $10,000 to $12,000 apiece.

Stewart claims his English Labs are purer than the U.S. breed (the most popular in America since 1992), which has been cross-bred repeatedly, thus muddying the gene pool. Originally from Newfoundland, Labs fetched fish slipped from hauling nets without puncturing the skin. Their tender grip made them useful to British hunters looking to gently retrieve downed game birds. Stewart traces his dogs' lineages to English hunting clubs, such as Queensberry Estate in Scotland and Arley Hall Estate in England, where hunts can cost thousands of dollars a day. "A misbehaving dog won't be asked to hunt there again," he says.

Wildrose stretches over 143 acres, with 66 kennels and various fields, creeks and ponds where pups are put through their paces. Many sporting dog trainers use shock collars and whips; Stewart prefers simple positive reinforcement, sternly delivering directions with a crisp "Good" or "No." Pups get treats for good behavior, while older dogs earn companionship or the chance to retrieve. Bad behavior? Ignored. If a dog comes tearing out of the house, Stewart stands dead still until it calms down and sits at his feet. "Then we'll go do what they love," he says.

Owners need training, too. Before they pick up a puppy, usually at the six-week mark, customers do a tour of the grounds, followed by a few hours of instruction in the commands and behavioral methods. With finished dogs, owners must spend a couple of days at Wildrose with Stewart and two other trainers. If the owner can handle the dog, Stewart lets him take the dog home. (Five times in a decade an owner has had to spend an extra day in training.)

Richard Adkerson, chief executive of the mining firm Freeport-McMoran, knows the drill. Adkerson owns two Wildrose black labs, 7-year-old Daisy and 18-month-old Carly. He says Stewart teaches owners to be the leader of the pack. "You have to master the commands, be consistent and look the dog in the eye," he says. Like Behnke, Adkerson takes his pooches everywhere, even when strolling through the bustling French Quarter of New Orleans, where he owns a home.

Still, $12,000 for a dog? Stewart points out that people spend four times as much for a car they'll get rid of in a few years. Raines Jordan, chief financial officer of Alexander Contracting in Columbus, Ga., agrees. Battered by the recession, he recently bought a fox red Lab named Ti. "I've lost a tremendous amount of what I've worked for in my life," he says. "I thought, hell, I might as well spend what's left on some enjoyment."

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Monte Burke, Forbes
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