Gentle Leader Co-Inventor Dies At 90
Dr. Robert "R.K." Anderson
Credit: University of Minnesota
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 Thursday night at his Falcon Heights, Minn., home. He was 90.
Anderson, DVM, MPH, Dipl. ACVB, Dipl. ACVPM, remained active until a few weeks ago as an animal behaviorist and as a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.
“Today, dogs and cats have lost their best friend, one they may have never known they had,” Steve Dale, a syndicated columnist, radio host in Chicago and certified animal behavior consultant, wrote on his Facebook page. “I lost an inspiration.”
The University of Minnesota released a statement that called Dr. Anderson “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,” the university stated.
Anderson attended the American Veterinary Medical Association convention in August in San Diego and sat in on behavior classes, Dale said in a telephone interview.
“He was going to sessions and taking it all in as though he was learning everything for the first time,” Dale said.
Anderson and Dale met for the first time about 15 years ago at the Western Veterinary Conference.
“He was familiar with my work,” Dale recalled. “I knew who R.K. Anderson was and I thought, ‘He’s familiar with my work?’ No one on this planet has influenced animal behavior as much as R.K. Anderson. He was ahead of his time.”
Born July 11, 1922, in Boulder, Colo., Anderson moved to a dairy farm near Fort Collins, Colo., when he was 11. He earned his veterinary degree from Colorado State University 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.
His experiences with handling frightened shelter dogs helped build his animal behavior knowledge, the University of Minnesota reported.
Anderson moved to Minnesota in 1954 and became the first director of the veterinary public health program in 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, the University of Minnesota reported.
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-based facility that broke ground in researching 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 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 a recent 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 dogs,” he added.
The University of Minnesota patented the now widely used collar, which the Smithsonian named as one of the world’s 100 best inventions. Anderson also co-invented the Easy Walk harness for dogs.
The Gentle Leader was a natural progression of Anderson’s expertise, Dale said.
“He knew we didn’t have to pull and tug our pets,” Dale said. “He created a whole new way of thinking. Back when he was in charge of animal control in Denver, there was only one thing you would do with those dogs: Euthanize them.
“He said many, many, many, many times, ‘There has to be another way,’ Dale recalled. “He knew that motivation would work better than intimidation.”
A lifetime of achievement earned Anderson a number of awards:
• In 2007, 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 Wall of Discovery by displaying the Gentle Leader head collar.
• The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists recognized Anderson at its 2005 annual meeting by presenting the R.K. Anderson Award to a resident in an approved behavior program.
One of Anderson’s final accomplishments was founding the Animal Behavior Resources Institute. Working with Duffer Schultz, a media production and communications professional, the men visited animal behavior professionals across the United States to videotape their work and conduct in-depth interviews, according to the group’s website.
“The overwhelmingly positive response from the professional community convinced us that this concept was worthy of a larger and more focused effort,” the website states.
The Minnesota-based nonprofit institute was created in 2006 and continues its efforts to this day.
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. He would be the first to tell you that we need to pay more attention to cats, that we take them for granted in some ways.
“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.