Mind Over Miller: From dog catching to vet school


Persistence led Dr. Miller not only to his dream, but also to a lifelong friend and mentor.


In the spring of 1951 I had earned my bachelor's degree in agriculture from the University of Arizona. I had also been turned down for the fourth consecutive year for admission to the Colorado A&M School of Veterinary Medicine. The competition was fierce due to the post-World War II GI bill (which gave returning soldiers the opportunity for education and training, among other services), and I had been advised to establish legal residency in a state with a veterinary school to facilitate admission.

I chose Colorado. I had spent the previous three summers working in that Rocky Mountain state and at the time wanted to spend my life there, preferably in a ski town in order to be conveniently close to my favorite sport.

I spent the summer working for the U.S. Forest Service with a string of pack horses. With the onset of winter I was no longer needed by the Forest Service, so I drove to Denver to see if I could find a job.

First I went to one of the big meat processing companies and flaunted my ag degree in animal husbandry. They offered me a job as a sales rep, traveling through Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. I gladly accepted and then was told that all the job applicants had to work for 30 days on the slaughterhouse floor before beginning their permanent job. I agreed to do so and was shown into a huge windowless room and assigned to a sausage machine.

After I left the plant I sat down outside and choked back tears. I was about to spend 200 hours of my life in an unbearable room doing a hateful job. I had just finished a Forest Service job riding every day through glorious forest, surrounded by magnificent alpine peaks.

I went back into the meat packing plant and told the interviewer I had changed my mind.

“Fine with me,” he said.

I had visited the Denver Zoo the previous day and I got an idea. I went to the government office that hired zoo employees. I loved zoos.

Again, waving my bachelor of science degree, I applied to be a zookeeper. I was told that I was well-qualified.

“When can I start work?” I asked happily.

“Oh, not for a long time,” was the reply. “There are 62 qualified applicants ahead of you.”

I was crushed. Of course, I hadn't mentioned that I was a veterinary school applicant and would quit the moment I was accepted to school.

“Gosh,” I said. “I'm so disappointed. I'd do anything to work with animals.”

“Well,” the interviewer responded, “we do have one animal job, but you wouldn't be interested in it.”

I asked why not.

“It's working for the country veterinarian Dr. Anderson at the dog pound.”

I said I'd take it.

“It only pays $247 a month,” he cautioned.

I confirmed I'd still take it.

“It's a dog-catching job!” he warned.

I told him I still wanted the position.

“Fine with me, if that's what you want!” the interviewer finally conceded.

For the next year I worked as a dog catcher in Denver. The city had just suffered a rabies epidemic and Dr. R.K. Anderson, who became my lifelong mentor, colleague and friend, had instituted a landmark program of stray dog control and mandatory rabies vaccination.

I set a record for the largest number of stray dogs captured in a single day in Denver (28). The Denver Post featured a two-page spread on me titled “Denver's Roping Dog Catcher.” Yes, I used my cowboy roping skills to capture strays.

Near the end of the year Dr. Anderson had me address county officials to plead for a higher wage for dog catchers. I did so, arguing that the risks and skills were equal to those policemen and firefighters experienced, so dog catchers ought to start at the same $400 monthly salary. It was declined, but I did get a $100 increase to benefit future pound personnel.

I had always loved dogs, trained them successfully and got along with them very well, but during that year with Dr. Anderson, a future professor and canine behaviorist, I learned so much more.

I adopted a collie-shepherd mix from the pound and named him Red. He was one of the best dogs I'd ever had and I trained him to help me catch strays.

Dr. Anderson wrote a letter of recommendation for me, which I never saw, and sent it to the veterinary school at Fort Collins. When I was finally accepted, I was told I was at the top of 700 qualified applicants.

I received my letter of admittance and, as I told Dr. Anderson I would, quit my dog-catching job and went back to my beloved Rocky Mountains to work horseback for my last summer before starting veterinary school.

Robert M. Miller, DVM, is an author, cartoonist and speaker from Thousand Oaks, California. His thoughts in "Mind Over Miller" are drawn from 32 years as a mixed-animal practitioner. Visit his website at www.robertmmiller.com.

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