Veterinary Practice News — December 2012
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Pioneering Animal Behaviorist R.K. Anderson Dies
Ken Niedziela

Robert “R.K.” Anderson, a revolutionary animal behaviorist, founder of the Animal Behavior Resources Institute and co-inventor of the Gentle Leader head collar and Easy Walk harness, died Oct. 18 at his Falcon Heights, Minn., home. He was 90.

“Dogs and cats have lost their best friend,” Steve Dale, a syndicated pet columnist and certified animal behavior consultant, wrote on his Facebook page. “I lost an inspiration.”

Anderson, DVM, MPH, Dipl.ACVB, Dipl. ACVPM, was professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, which released a statement calling him “a gentle giant in the world of veterinary medicine.”

“Anderson led a distinguished career that is immortalized through numerous awards and honors, two inventions that revolutionized dog training and handling, several nonprofit organizations, which he helped found, more than 75 scientific papers and countless numbers of students,” the university said.

Dr. Anderson remained active until just before his death.He attended the American Veterinary Medical Association convention in August in San Diego and sat in on behavior classes.

Age was never an issue with Anderson, said Margaret M. Duxbury, DVM, Dipl. ACVB, of Minnesota’s Veterinary Medical Center. Anderson mentored Dr. Duxbury during her residency in behavior.

“I learned so much about animal behavior and about life from him,” she said. “When I first started with my residency program I was in my 40s. I remember thinking, ‘I’m too old to get started.’ He just looked at me and said, ‘There’s no such thing.’

“I could never use my age as an excuse,” she added. “He set the bar high in a good way.”

Veterinary Practice News columnist Alice Villalobos, DVM, DPNAP, and other colleagues of Anderson’s met him in San Diego on Aug. 2 to celebrate his 90th birthday.

“He was in a festive mood, sharp as a tack,” Dr. Villalobos recalled. “He had difficulty walking because his M.S. was catching up to him. Almost everybody from the behavior academy was there, including Ian Dunbar, Marty Becker, Robin Downing.People flew in from everywhere just to be with R.K.”

Born July 11, 1922, in Boulder, Colo., Anderson moved to a dairy farm near Fort Collins when he was 11. He earned his veterinary degree from Colorado State in 1944 and joined the U.S. Navy, which furthered his training in epidemiology and laboratory science.

After World War II, Anderson was hired as director of the veterinary public health program at Denver’s Department of Health and Hospitals. He left to obtain a master’s of public health degree from the University of Michigan in 1950 and returned to Denver during a citywide rabies outbreak as director of the animal control program and animal shelter.

Anderson moved to Minnesota in 1954 and became the first director of the veterinary public health program at the university’s School of Public Health. He ran the program for more than three decades, teaching both veterinary and public health students about food safety and protection, zoonotic diseases and epidemiology.

As a researcher studying brucellosis, he helped establish tests to distinguish between vaccinal antibodies and antibodies due to infection. The work allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to differentiate between infected animals and those that had been vaccinated.

In 1980, Anderson took a sabbatical to study animal behavior and psychology at the University of California, Davis. The move spawned arguably his most distinguished career.

Anderson helped found the Delta Society, now known as Pet Partners, an organization dedicated to enlisting therapy, service and companion animals to improve human health. He also cofounded the Center to Study Human-Animal Relationships and Environments, a Minneapolis facility that broke ground on how animals affect people’s well-being.

One of Anderson’s late-career accomplishments was the invention of the Gentle Leader collar for dogs, which he developed with Ruth Foster, then-president of the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors. Anderson’s experience in dairy farming and animal control played a critical role in the device’s creation.

“I had a background in cattle and horses, and we didn’t use choke chains on horses and cattle but we did use halters,” he recalled in an interview with the University of Minnesota.“So I said, ‘Why can’t we use halters on dogs?’

“I was jeered and laughed at, as I was in Denver when I used food to motivate (shelter) dogs,” he added.

The University of Minnesota patented the widely used collar, which the Smithsonian named one of the world’s 100 best inventions.Anderson also co-invented the Easy Walk harness for dogs.

One of Anderson’s final accomplishments was founding the Animal Behavior Resources Institute in 2006. Despite all his work with dogs, Anderson was a cat lover, too, Dale said.

“Here’s a secret: He was a cat guy,” Dale revealed. “His last pet was a cat. As much as he loved dogs, as much as he changed the way we look at dogs, when push came to shove he was a cat guy.”

Anderson’s wife, Winifred, died in 2004. He is survived by three sons and a longtime companion, Marlys Giesecke.