On a grey morning in Okolona, more than half a dozen British labradors sit at their open kennel doors, eyes fixed on Barton Ramsey. They twitch with excitement until he releases them to play and they take off across the fields that Ramsey uses for training and exercising the dogs. This is how many SOK work days begin.
When Ramsey started training dogs for the public in 2010, his goal was to raise funds for his family’s adoption. He had always enjoyed teaching his dogs parlor tricks—sit, stay, roll over—but when his wife, Bethany, got him a gun dog as a Christmas present, he dove headlong into the world of hunting dog training. He reached out to Mark Hairfield of Southaven Kennels, who not only helped him train his dog but took him on as an apprentice. Seven years later, Ramsey owns the second largest British Labrador breeding and training operation in the country.
“There isn’t a lot of branding in the dog world. A lot of people are great with dogs, but don’t know how to build a business, and I didn’t either,” Barton said. “I was determined to learn how to build a brand.”
Southern Oak Kennels is a national operation, with four locations and a gun dog in nearly every state. The newest location is SOK North in Michigan, run by Don Collyer and Wally Schalau.
It joins three Mississippi-based locations—SOK Saltillo, operated by Brad Robertson; SOK South in Hamilton, operated by Chelsea Harris; and SOK Headquarters, where Ramsey and his family live and work, with help from his kennel manager Howell Palmer. SOK Outposts are in the works, too, for hobby dog trainers who want to take on one to two dogs and keep their day job.
At any given time, each location could have close to two dozen dogs in training, but they rarely surpass that number, so that each dog gets an optimum amount of attention and interaction.
SOK breeds and trains British Labradors exclusively from their breeding lines for their pedigrees and mild temperament. Ramsey rejects the myth that a hunting dog cannot be a family dog. In fact, he encourages his training clients to treat their dogs as family pets.
“British Labs are the most desirable breed because they’re the perfect combination—calm and quiet with lots of drive in the field,” Ramsey said.
The SOK Main Campus in Okolona is home to the SOK Lodge, a home-away-from-home for Ramsey’s clients and visiting trainers, and the site of the SOK Summit, an annual event thrown by Ramsey for the SOK faithful. It features a dog competition (just for fun), a catered dinner and group training. The proceeds go to Delta Waterfowl Foundation for conservation efforts.
“People can get a dog anywhere. People don’t just choose us because we have a high pedigree or advanced health testing, but because we have created a lifestyle brand. This is a community where I want people to feel they belong,” Ramsey said. “We had people driving from all over the country come here to pick up their dogs. I wanted them to be able to stay and feel part of this lifestyle for a few days—to wake up when we are waking up and taking out dogs. They get to see the training they’ve been reading about online while they waited for a puppy.”
The Lodge is one of the ways that Ramsey is branding his business by creating a national community of Southern Oak Kennels ambassadors. The business’ Facebook group, called “SOK Society,” is a way to experience that community online. Members share tips and successes and chat with other gundog owners and trainers. This kind of interaction has earned Southern Oak Kennels more than 13 thousand Facebook likes and more than 21 thousand Instagram followers.
Another online tool is the newly-launched Cornerstone Gundog Academy, a resource for the dog training DIY enthusiast. Step-by-step videos teach dog owners SOK training methods.
“When I was starting, it seemed like no one had built a kennel from the ground up,” Ramsey said. “Social media is what has taken it to the level it is today. We want to take people, for whatever time they’re in this, and make their life better. We want this lifestyle to come to life for people.”
He credits his success with doing just that, along with making the right contacts and embracing the natural camaraderie of hunting culture.