Robert K. Anderson
One of the College of Veterinary Medicine’s most accomplished faculty members, Dr. Robert K. (R.K.) Anderson, passed away on October 18, 2012, at the age of 90. A bright and highly accomplished veterinarian, Anderson remained active in his role as an animal behaviorist and professor emeritus in veterinary public health until weeks before his death. 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 whom he mentored.
Anderson was fond of saying he had not one—but four—careers, of which dairy farming was his first. Born July 11, 1922, in Boulder, Colorado, Anderson moved to a dairy farm near Fort Collins, Colorado, when he was 11. The Anderson farm was located about a half mile from Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Anderson started what would become a lifetime career, which spanned six decades, as a breeder of purebred dairy cows. His introduction to population medicine began early when he allowed his milk cows to function as a study herd for Colorado State University veterinary students. That experience would later prove critical to his success as an animal behaviorist.
In 1944, Anderson graduated from Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine after three years due to a year-round accelerated schedule implemented during World War II. His plan at that time was to become a dairy cattle practitioner, but the U.S. Navy trained him in epidemiology and laboratory science and the war exposed him to the world of public health.
His second career spanned a period of four years and would set the stage for his work in Minnesota. After the war, Anderson returned to Colorado and accepted a position as director of the veterinary public health program at Denver’s Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH). He left that position to obtain a master’s of public health from the University of Michigan in 1950, but then returned to DHH during a citywide rabies outbreak as director of the animal control program and animal shelter. His experience there handling frightened dogs further built on what would later become one of the world’s most successful veterinary careers in animal behavior.
His third career landed him at the University of Minnesota in 1954, when Dr. W. T. S. Thorp, director of the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Dr. Gaylord Anderson, the first dean of the University’s School of Public Health, developed a joint program in veterinary public health. The two recruited Anderson to become the first director of the veterinary public health program in the School of Public Health, a position he held until 1986. For more than three decades he ran the program, teaching both veterinary and public health students about food safety and protection, zoonotic diseases, and epidemiology.
Anderson’s work helped lay the groundwork for modern-day research in population and comparative animal medicine at the College. As a researcher studying brucellosis, he helped establish new 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. Anderson was also appointed to the National Brucellosis Technical Commission in the 1970s, a five-member commission consisting of two veterinarians, a cattle rancher, an economist, and a representative from the National Cattlemen’s Association. Their work resulted in a nearly 200-page report.
In 1980, Anderson took a sabbatical leave from the University of Minnesota to study animal behavior and psychology at the University of California, Davis. His studies there spawned his fourth and arguably most distinguished career, which would eventually span three decades.
Anderson helped found the Delta Society, an organization dedicated to enlisting the help of therapy, service, and companion animals to improve human health. The Delta Society eventually moved to Bellevue, Washington. Anderson then went on to co-found the Center to study Human Animal Relationships and Environments (CENSHARE) jointly through the College of Veterinary Medicine and School of Public Health. Based in Minneapolis, CENSHARE conducts research and disseminates information on human-animal relationships and their effects on human 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 both dairy farming and animal control in Colorado played a critical role.
“I had a background in cattle and horses, and we didn’t use choke chains on horses and cattle, but we did use halters. So I said, ‘Why can’t we use halters on dogs?’” Anderson said in a recent interview. “I was jeered and laughed at as I was in Denver when I used food to motivate dogs.” The University of Minnesota eventually patented the now widely used and revolutionary collar, which the Smithsonian named as one of the world’s 100 best inventions. Anderson also co-invented the GL Easy Walk harness for dogs.
Awards and honors
Anderson was an internationally recognized teacher, speaker, author, practitioner, and consultant in the fields of veterinary public health, animal behavior, and human animal relationships. He authored or co-authored more than 75 scientific papers related to veterinary medicine, veterinary public health, and the human and companion animal bond.
He was the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2009 George T. Angell Humanitarian Award from the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; the 2005 American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Lifetime Achievement Award; the 2005 International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants Animals Other Nations Award; the 2004 American Association of Veterinary Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine Calvin W. Schwabe Award for Lifetime Achievements; the 2002 Student Chapter of American Veterinary Medical Association, Iowa State University, Gentle Doctor Award; the 2000 American Humane Association Waco E. Childers Award for Lifetime Achievements in animal welfare; the 1998 Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association Award for Distinguished Service; the 1977 Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association Minnesota Veterinarian of the Year Award for Outstanding Service to his Community and Profession; the 1992 American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine Distinguished Diplomate Award; the 1992 Michael J. McCulloch Award in recognition of Outstanding Contributions Related to the Human Animal Bond; and the 1987 Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Bustad Award.
In 2007, the Morris Animal Foundation honored Anderson by establishing the R. K. Anderson Endowment Fund for Research on Improving the Behavior of Companion Animals. In 2006, the University of Minnesota honored him on its prestigious "Wall of Discovery" by displaying the Gentle Leader head collar. The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists honored Anderson at its 2005 annual meeting by presenting the R. K. Anderson Award to a resident in an approved behavior program.
Over the years, he held numerous positions, including chair of the Animal Behavior Resources Institute, a nonprofit created to provide free educational videos, podcasts, and articles for companion animal professionals and their clients. He also has served as president of the American Teachers of Veterinary Public Health and Preventive Medicine, the St. Paul Association of Retarded Children, and the Minnesota Public Health Association. From 1964 to 1971, Anderson also served as associate dean of the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.
Father of three
Anderson was preceded in death by his wife, Winifred, in 2004. He is survived by three sons, Richard, Mark, and Eric, and very special friend Marlys Giesecke. The family has asked 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. There will be a public celebration of his life in early December.