Dogs are not only man’s best friend, but a source of massive income.
Barton Ramsey, owner of Southern Oak Kennels in Okolona, Mississippi, and founding partner of Cornerstone Gun Dog Academy, makes his living training and breeding high quality Labrador retriever gun dogs for waterfowl hunters.
The kennel specializes in Labs of British and Irish descent, weighing around 60 pounds. The specific generic make up of these dogs are small, athletic, well mannered and quiet, the perfect dog for waterfowl hunting since they have to sit still for long periods of time during hunts.
Ramsey went on his first duck hunt 10 years ago in 2009 with a buddy from church and fell in love. He enjoyed watching the dog retrieve and had a springer spaniel at home that he had just obedience trained on his own.
“I went home after the hunt, took some ducks and taught my dog what a duck was,” he said. “She loved to retrieve. The next time I went duck hunting, I took her and she was great. I sort of got lucky there.”
The following Christmas in 2010, his wife gifted him a new springer spaniel and he started training her specifically for duck hunting after watching videos and reading books. However, Ramsey got stuck, so he sought help.
“I hired a guy who lives south of us and had been training since the mid-’70s, took my dog to him to train, and he ended up becoming a mentor to me,” he said. “Since 2010, I have been training dogs. It was a fun hobby that grew and grew until I eventually had to give up my job as a student pastor to sustain what is now my business.”
That point was reached after a lot of hard work though, and Southern Oak Kennels was up and running. Ramsey purchased his first labs about a year and a half into training from his mentor, Mark Hairfield, owner and operator of Southhaven Kennels for over 30 years in central Mississippi. He specialized in springer spaniels and Labrador retrievers.
“I could tell early on Barton was passionate about dogs,” Hairfield said, “and he’s a real good guy, a people person, and that goes a long way in building relationships and business.”
Ramsey was training dogs for people to make extra money as a hobby that transitioned into a full time job. He decided he would rather train his own dogs and began breeding four or five litters of lab puppies a year.
By 2016, Ramsey was exclusively training and breeding his own dogs, imported from Britain and Ireland. Word spread about this young trainer in Okolona, and business continued to grow. Along the way, Ramsey got tons of questions about dog training.
There is obviously a market for people who train their own dogs and need help along the way with new ideas, or their dog may not respond to a certain method of training.
“I was thinking it would be really nice to answer all these questions and get paid, and people could go to one place, and answers to their questions would be there,” he said. “Some buddies that I had got involved with in Birmingham who were training called and said they were working on an idea for something like that.”
Cornerstone Gundog Academy was conceived in the spring of 2016 and launched in April of 2017. “The academy is set up so that the day you bring your puppy home, to the day of becoming a finished gundog, there is a video accessible on your phone to help with training,” he said.
Southern Oak Kennels now has seven locations. Saltillo and Okolona, Mississippi; Athens, Michigan; and Charleston, South Carolina are the big four. Then they have outposts in Ponotoc, Mississippi; Bracken Creek, Wisconsin; and Fox Ridge, Kentucky.
The outposts have 1-3 females and 1-3 client dogs, while the four main locations have 5-10 breeding females, 1-4 stud dogs and 3-15 client dogs. The headquarters at Ramsey’s house has around 20 dogs. The company as a whole has about 26 litters of puppies a year. Purchasing a SOK puppy requires a $500 deposit and $2,000 upon receiving your dog.
Ramsey only advertises his stud dogs on social media and has a clever way to do so. “I gave Barton my business plan that had worked for over 30 years for me, and he took it and incorporated social media, and it took off,’’ said Hairfield.
Along with advertising on social media, SOK sends a few breeding females that won’t go into heat during the season, along with stud dogs to trusted hunting outfitters who showcase the dogs. When someone goes on a hunt, they see Southern Oak Kennel dogs working, and that body of work serves as an advertisement for the company.
The company is still growing with Cornerstone Gundog Academy gaining traction and just turning two in April of this year. Ramsey has plans for continuing to grow the brand.
“We are working with people from the UK along with people here to start doing British-styled field trials for dogs,” he said. “Have ran a few mock ones and hope to have something legit by 2021.”
Along with this, they host an event every year called the SOK Summit with events, and all the sponsors or company business partners attend and show off their new gear. Businesses such as Gunner Kennels, Sitka, Beretta, and Delta Waterfowl are a few.
There are also games for dogs, such as the “scurry,” where the dog with the fastest retrieve wins, and a long-jump competition off the pier into lake. The event brings together outdoorsmen and raises money for waterfowl conservation. This year it is April 13.
Conservationists, waterfowls, outdoorsmen and people in general all love dogs and events that show off dogs. The dog market has no ceiling, just infinite space to grow.
With Southern Oak Kennels continuing to develop relationships, sponsors, and business partners combined with the fact humans love dogs, it is unimaginable how large this company could become. SOK dogs are not only hunting dogs, but because of their pedigree, they are easy to train making them great family pets.