R. K. Anderson, No One Stood as Tall in Veterinary Medicine


Few pet owners will recognize the name Dr. R.K. Anderson. Yet, your pet has benefited from his advocacy. A press release from the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine called Anderson, who passed away October 19 at age 90, a “gentle giant” in the world of veterinary medicine. Though, giant isn’t a large enough word, Anderson was an icon. No one stood as tall.

In the early 1950’s Anderson was chided as a “cookie pusher,” a derogatory statement back in the day. Anderson was running Denver’s animal control facility, and refused to euthanize some dogs with behavior problems. He sought to help them.

“We would take in these anxious dogs who were very scared, Anderson told me in 2003. “The approved method (of controlling and training problem dogs) was pretty punitive back then. I saw that we’d use these harsh methods and the dogs would get worse, becoming more anxious and more afraid. Instead, I decided to try to motivate with food.”

The idea of using food to train dogs was considered radical back then; dog trainers and veterinarians laughed at Anderson. They didn’t laugh for long, though. Anderson was ahead of his time. He always was.

In an effort to replace the “choke collar” and punitive training devices with a kinder and gentler alternative, he co-invented the Gentle Leader (the first head halter for dogs) and later helped to create the Easy Walk Harness.

“R.K. didn’t just say stop pronging, choking and shocking dogs – he created an alternative approach, and a better way,” says Ontario, based veterinary behaviorist Dr. Gary Landsberg.

Sharon Madere, Midlothian, VA, founder of Premier Pet Products, helped to launch the Gentle Leader. “There’s no question that R.K. revolutionized the way pet owners relate to and train their pets.” Anderson taught those who directly teach pet owners, generations of veterinary students, veterinary technicians and dog trainers.

Before YouTube was launched Anderson has a similar idea for pet behavior, which might communicate to ‘the masses.’ He thought, instead of reading articles and scientific papers to help solve pets’ behavior problems, why not use video on the Internet to demonstrate how to solve the problems? He launched the Animal Behavior Resources Institute.

Anderson, contributed to or authored over 75 scientific papers, many sought to better understand animal emotions and the human/animal bond. He was a founding member of the Delta Society (now called Pet Partners), a former Director of the American Humane Association and co-founded the first Center to study Human Animal Relationships and Environments jointly through the College of Veterinary Medicine (in Minneapolis) and School of Public Health. Anderson was also a charter member of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, an organization he cherished.

It was Anderson (with veterinary behaviorist Dr. Andrew Luescher) who came up with the idea of elevating the status of veterinary technicians and to create a specialty group for certification in behavior. Technician Julie Shaw of West Lafayette, IN helped to make that happen. A superstar in her field, she credits Anderson.

“This magic notion of “whispering” to a dog is hardly new,” adds Landsberg. “R.K.  didn’t market the term ‘whisperer,’ but had been saying for decades, talk in a whisper, be calm, be clear (to the pet). He never needed to use force on an animal.”

Shaw says that Anderson lived to bring people together, so dog trainers and veterinarians were encouraged to mingle and share ideas. “Every veterinarian and nearly all dog trainers have been touched by R.K.’s influence in some way,” says Shaw. “He simply changed the way we looked at dogs – one man made all that difference.”

Shaw says that Anderson treated people like he trained dogs. “He was always there to praise you. There was nothing so rewarding as being complimented by R.K. As a result, people wanted to work with him. Maybe we can all learn from that.”

In a 2003 conversation Anderson said, “We don’t live in the 1950’s or the 1960’s any longer. We know more today than we did then. I believe we can do a great job of teaching the dog whatever we need to without inflicting pain. After all, don’t they deserve that? We’re supposed to be talking about our best friends.”

If the ultimate test of a life is to leave the world a better place – R.K. Anderson set the bar.

©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services