R.K. Anderson, revolutionary behaviorist and inventor of Gentle Leader, dies at 90

R.K. Anderson, revolutionary behaviorist and inventor of Gentle Leader, dies at 90

Anderson credited with changing veterinary behavior approach from punitive to motivational.
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Oct 23, 2012

Veterinarian, animal behaviorist and University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine professor emeritus Robert K. “R.K.” Anderson, DVM, MPH, DACVB, DACVPM, died Oct. 18, 2012, at the age of 90. Called a “gentle giant” in the world of veterinary medicine in a university release, Anderson leaves a legacy of teaching, mentoring and inventions--including the Gentle Leader head collar--that revolutionized dog training and handling.

“He had this large commanding voice, a huge commanding presence, but was a gentleman and a gentle human being,” says Steve Dale, a certified animal behavior consultant, radio host, syndicated newspaper columnist and Anderson’s close friend and colleague.

“I don’t think anyone in veterinary medicine has had that kind of impact on so many people. He set a high bar for a lot of us.”

To Dale, Anderson was indeed a giant and might as well have invented the phrase “human-animal bond.” “All he cared about at the end of the day was treating our animals with the integrity and respect they deserve,” Dale says. “He was ahead of his time in everything he did.”

Anderson was born July 11, 1922, in Boulder, Colo. He moved to a dairy farm near Fort Collins, Colo., when he was 11, not far from the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Anderson graduated from CSU with his veterinary degree in three years due to a year-round accelerated schedule prompted by World War II. While in the U.S. Navy, Anderson was trained in epidemiology, laboratory science and public health.

After the war, Anderson accepted a position as director of the veterinary public health program at the Department of Health and Hospitals in Denver. He left to earn his master of public health degree from the University of Michigan but returned to Denver in 1950 during a citywide rabies outbreak as director of the municipal animal control program.

In 1954, Anderson became the first director of the University of Minnesota’s veterinary public health program in the School of Public Health. He ran the program for more than three decades. Anderson’s work in public health led him to establish new tests to distinguish between vicinal antibodies and antibodies due to infection, which allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to differentiate between infected and vaccinated animals.

A 1980 sabbatical from the University of Minnesota took Anderson to the University of California, Davis, to study animal behavior and psychology. While there Anderson co-founded the Delta Society, now known as Pet Partners, an organization that uses therapy, service and companion animals to improve human health, and the Center to Study Human Animal Relationships and Environments (CENSHARE). Based in Minneapolis, CENSHARE conducts research and disseminates information on human-animal relationships and their effects on human well-being.

Anderson also invented the Gentle Leader collar for dogs. Developed with Ruth Foster, then president of the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors, the collar was designed to replace choke chains. His work on a dairy farm and in animal control led him to believe motivation rather than punishment or intimidation was a more effective behavioral tool, and the Gentle Leader grew out of that philosophy. The Smithsonian named the collar one of the world’s 100 best inventions. He also went on to co-invent the Easy Walk harness.

Anderson also developed the nonprofit Animal Behavior Resources Institute (see abrionline.org) to provide education and animal behavior resources--specifically videos by veterinary behavior experts designed to illustrate the Anderson method. “It was brilliant,” Dale says. “Again, ahead of his time--it seems so logical now, but videos were just starting on the Web.”

Dale says Anderson was simply tireless when it came to his work and he enjoyed nothing more than to share his methods and see them implemented by others. While imparting his knowledge, Dale says Anderson made every person he met feel special. “You always hear about that but he was that,” Dale says.

The impact Anderson had on people and animals was evident to Dale a few years ago when the two were having lunch at a veterinary conference. Not long after the friends sat down, a young veterinarian approached them. “You’re R.K. Anderson,” Dale recalls her saying. “You’ve made such a difference for what I do. You’ve taught me so much. I just want to say thank you.” Ten minutes later someone else came up to express her appreciation for the Easy Handler. Later a former student came up to him to reconnect after 25 years. “R.K. was then 85 or 86 and still going, still making a difference,” Dale says.

Anderson’s approval and encouragement was freely given and highly coveted. “Few things in life--besides maybe a margarita; he loved margaritas--are as fulfilling as getting a ‘job well done’ from R.K. and literally a pat on the back--it was more of a slap; you could feel it,” Dale says.

An author of more than 75 scientific papers in the areas of veterinary medicine, veterinary public health and the human and companion animal bond, Anderson was honored with numerous awards, including the 2009 George T. Angell Humanitarian Award from the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The Morris Animal Foundation honored Anderson in 2007 with the R.K. Anderson Endowment Fund for Research on Improving the Behavior of Companion Animals.

An internationally recognized teacher, practitioner and pioneer in his field, Anderson continued his role as professor and animal behaviorist until weeks before his death. His family, including his three sons, asks that memorial gifts be sent to the University of Minnesota Foundation in support of the Minnesota Veterinary Historical Museum Endowed Fund or the Veterinary Pioneers in Public Health Resident Education Fund. A public celebration of his life is planned for early December.

“I don’t think there’s been any greater supporter of understanding the importance of behavior in veterinary medicine and for our pets in general--no one,” Dale says. “That was his life. We can help pets and by doing so we’re helping all of us.”