On September 28, 2014, the world lost one of leading advocates for the humane treatment of animals when 48-year-old Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, died at her home in Davis, Calif. Her death was attributed, tragically, to suicide. The news spread quickly on social media and stunned the training, behavior, veterinary and humane communities in which she was a leader. I was honored to count Sophia as a friend and a colleague.
To say that her death shocked everyone who knew or knew of her is an understatement. I would be hard pressed to think of anyone more unlikely to leave us in the manner that she did, and it has been extremely difficult for me to come to terms with the loss.
Dynamic, loving, generous, compassionate, intelligent, ebullient, extremely hard-working, Sophia approached everything she did—from running her own media company (aptly named CattleDog Publishing) to her tireless work as a veterinary behaviorist and trainer—with the highest level of excellence, professionalism and enthusiasm.
A pioneer in the field of force-free, positive-reinforcement dog training, her books include How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves and Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats, the first (and so far, only) instructional book for veterinarians on these important skills. Her expertise and generosity are still on display on her website, drsophiayin.com, where she shared training videos, papers and practical advice, all for free.
I first met Sophia at a Karen Pryor clicker-training expo, and her passion for the program was infectious. We had just launched The Bark, and she eagerly accepted my invitation to write for us. More recently, she and I attended an APDT meeting together— accompanied by her amazing little JRT, Jonesy, a constant at her side— and it was like being with a rock star. Every bit of the attention and praise that came her way was well deserved.
About five years ago, she told me she was planning a vacation to Southeast Asia. We had published a story about an amazing street dog project in Bali, so I mentioned it to her, and suggested that she might look in on them. Well, even though Bali had not been on her itinerary, she made it a point to go there and help out. She not only gave seminars and training demonstrations, she also brought much-needed medicines (and dog toys, which was very like her). It was so unexpected, yet so eminently “Sophia” for her to step up in that fashion. On a personal note, I also enlisted her expertise when we brought our semi-feral, fearful pups home from Kentucky; her counsel (take it slow, have plenty of patience) and advice (stimulate without force) worked wonders.
She generously gave time and energy to so many people. It was Sophia’s mission to improve our understanding of animal behavior, and the behavioral modification programs she developed were strictly scientifically based (unlike the coercion or dominance methods popularized by a TV personality). Sophia dedicated her life to helping us learn how to better communicate with our animals as a way to improve the bonds between us.
We grieve for the loss that her family has suffered, and we will make it our mission to honor her memory by promoting and enshrining all that she stood for. Her legacy—the Yin Effect, some call it—is enhanced every time someone offers a dog a jackpot treat for responding to a cue, or takes up chicken training to master the art of a “quick” click, or adds a dog to a personal exercise routine, or (in the case of vets) sits on the floor to be with a patient.
Dear Sophia, you taught us so much. Bark dedicates our Winter 2014 issue to Dr. Sophia Yin, with tributes and recollections from those whose lives she touched.
Did you ever see Sophia Yin blowing in a dog’s face to counter-condition his tendency to snap and growl? It’s a thing of wonder. I wonder at the speed with which a formerly reactive dog can be turned into a delightful, adoptable dog. I wonder at the pleasure the dogs who were lucky enough to meet Sophia must have received from their encounter. I wonder at her ability to apply simple, well-known behavioral principles to novel problems with such mastery.