Dr. Marty Becker and Dr. R.K. Anderson

My friend and fellow veterinarian Dr. R.K. Anderson passed away last week; he was 90 years old. I know most pet lovers have never heard of Dr. Anderson, but they  know him by the work he did, and it was very good work indeed.

He brought the science of animal behavior to the training of our animal companions, and both people and pets are better for it. Even as the veterinarians, behaviorists and trainers who knew and admired him contemplate our lives without him, his legacy endures.

Every day, because of Dr. Anderson, countless dog owners take their pets for a walk that is a pleasure at both ends of the leash. That’s because among his many accomplishments, there is one every dog lover knows: Dr. Anderson was the coinventor of the Gentle Leader head collar. He was also a founding diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) and a mentor to many veterinarians, including me. And always, he was a powerful voice for pets, people and the profession of veterinary medicine.

Words cannot begin to convey how much he will be missed, nor how revolutionary the legacy he leaves behind.

A Winning Smile and a Powerful Personality

I first met R.K. (almost everyone just called him that) at the American Veterinary Medical Association convention many years ago. As I entered the exhibit hall at the old convention center in New Orleans, people started rushing up to me, saying, “R.K. wants to talk to you. R.K. WANTS TO TALK TO YOU!”

Because of my work in the media, I knew most of the profession's movers and shakers. But I didn’t know R.K., and I kept saying, “Who’s this R.K. guy?”

Soon a slender man in his late sixties strode up, put one hand on my shoulder, thrust his other hand outward and practically yelled, “Dr. Marty Becker, I’m Dr. R.K. Anderson, and you’re just the man for something of great significance, and before I leave here you’re going to say yes to this urgent project!”

Ordinarily when you meet someone for the first time there’s a little warming, exploration and sizing each other up, but this introduction was heading towards lifelong commitment in the first few seconds. Normally this kind of encounter would be awkward or even repulsive, but it was none of that with R.K., even though he was in my personal space with his face about a foot from mine. Why not? Because he was wearing a huge grin that looked like a giant Nike swoosh, and when he smiled it made his eyes close to the point where they looked like coin slots in a vending machine. He radiated positive energy and an incredible spirit.

He said that he’d been talking with Dr. Leo Bustad (my old dean at the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine), and they’d decided that I was the person to carry the message of the human-animal bond, not just to the veterinary profession but also to the world. These two were major proponents of the human-animal bond and were cofounders of the Delta Society (now Pet Partners). They knew the importance of celebrating, protecting and nurturing this bond as well as the allied human-animal health benefits that derived from it. "Why me?" I asked R.K., and he said forcefully, “Because you’ve got the purpose, passion and plan to make it happen.”

Over the next almost three decades, I learned that yes was the only way to answer R.K. when he asked you to do something. I worked with R.K. on many projects and came to know him as a friend.

A Lifetime of Promoting the Human-Animal Bond

One time he came to our practices in Salt Lake City to teach us how to reduce fear for pets visiting the hospital. He told me to tell the staffs of the two hospitals to call the owners of the dogs we least liked to see, the ones that were so terrified of us that it was a struggle to treat them; he wanted the owners to bring their dogs in for training. For someone to be willing to do that — the veterinary equivalent of putting your head in the lion’s mouth — really amped up interest in his talk and gave him extreme credibility. He helped us create a veritable “All Treat Veterinary Hospital,” and we ended up bringing R.K. back to SLC several times, helping to extend his teachings to other area practices and shelters.

Over the years I spent many a night in hotel rooms with R.K. He’d be in SLC training, or we’d both go to the same meetings and share a room. The bad part was R.K. never stopped talking about the human-animal bond, positive training of companion animals and how to help the profession. Most of the time, I’d eventually drift off to sleep with him still talking. I got a bigger dose of R.K. than most people by being inoculated again and again with his messages and marinating in his extreme passion for pets, people and the profession. As my mentor, R.K. taught me to always look after and speak out for the best interests of the animal.

R.K. thought I deserved the Bustad Award for the Companion Animal Practitioner of the Year. I kept saying there were others a lot more worthy, but again, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. In 2002 he spearheaded an effort that got me that award. Of all the awards I’ve received, this was the most important to me, and the only one that sits atop my desk. I think of R.K. several times a day looking at it, and it always makes me smile.

Saying Thank You — and Yes

Last August I went with my wife, Teresa, and my daughter, Vetstreet dog trainer Mikkel Becker, to R.K.’s 90th birthday party in San Diego, at the start of the AVMA conference. The room at the restaurant was packed with colleagues, friends, business partners and family, with people passing the microphone to tell R.K. what he had meant to their careers and lives. Not to my surprise, there were at least a dozen others who said R.K. was their mentor and best of friends. What a gift that man had to make so many people feel as if they were number one!

Before I left the birthday party, I went over to R.K. I put one hand on his shoulder, thrust my other hand outward and got in his personal space, as he had done to me all those years previously when we first met.

“You were just the man to do things of great significance, you said yes, and more important you did them,” I told him. “We have you to thank for animal behavior having a prominent place in veterinary medicine, for elevating the human-animal bond in practice, for promoting the healing power of pets, and for inventing products that help millions of pets and people. From the profesion in general and myself specifically, thank you, dear friend.”

R.K. pulled me close, hugged me and practically yelled, “You’re just getting started, Marty. I figure you have at least 30 more years of promoting the human-animal bond in you.”

Although I couldn’t image myself being almost 90-years-old and still being on the bandwagon, I did what I always did with R.K.

I said yes. And I meant it.