Remembering Dr. Sophia Yin

The Yin Effect
By Claudia Kawczynska, December 2014

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.

As someone who is keen to understand and highlight the dog’s point of view, I saw Sophia as embodying this approach in a meaningful, practical way—toward training both dog and owner to comprehend what the other is saying. My heart about leaps imagining the improvement in the lives of the dogs she worked with, directly or indirectly.

— Alexandra Horowitz, PhD Author, Inside of a Dog

Sophia Yin and I met often over the years: at conferences, at ClickerExpo, over training matters and commercial interests, too. She was elegant, warm, smiling, always full of new projects, new creative ideas, new training. Once, she showed me a video of a stallion in the barns at UC Davis who was terrified of the fly sprayer. She clicker trained him to the point where he left off ogling the pretty mare in the next paddock to run to Sophia and get his face sprayed instead. Her newspaper column, her wonderful book on gentle handling … everything she did was magic. Darn it, Sophia, we were not through with you! I miss you.

— Karen Pryor Founder, Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy

Like many others, I was devastated to learn of Sophia’s death. I did back-to-back lectures and workshops with Sophia in southern Germany in late 2006. We talked about the importance of positive training/teaching, and she was very interested and concerned about the terminology used to discuss the behavior of dogs, especially the word “dominance.” We had lovely exchanges about this and other topics, and I learned a lot from these discussions. I loved how “up” she always was, and how enthusiastic she was when talking about dogs—always open to learning more about them and their relationship with us.

People gravitated to her like she was a magnet. I followed Sophia’s career closely because she was so very interested in applying what we know about dog behavior to how we teach and live with these amazing beings. We also shared a passion for “getting out”; when Sophia contacted me after the conference, assuming I might not remember who she was—of course, I did—she wrote: “It’s Sophia from the Germany conference. I went running on the path you suggested the day after the conference. It was a nice run.”

It’s heartening to know that Sophia’s legacy and positive spirit, energy and love for dogs and people will live on and on, as they should. Thank you, Sophia, for all you did for dogs and their humans. The “Yin Effect” will endure for years on end.

— Marc Bekoff, PhD Author, The Emotional Lives of Animals, Animal Matters

Sophia relentlessly championed reward-based dog training and provided a wealth of easy and effective alternatives to aversive training techniques. She was a bright light in the fields of dog training and behavior counseling. I really loved her approach. Despite her excellent academic pedigree, Sophia never tried to complicate matters by using unfathomable terminology. Instead, she always explained behavior and training succinctly and clearly in a down-toearth, step-by-step fashion that everybody could understand and follow. Her Manners Minder is a brilliant tool with numerous uses, and her book Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs and Cats was a breath of fresh air and remains a must-read for all veterinary practitioners. Sophia died much too young; such a tragic loss. Her sparkling presence and sage, practical advice will be sorely missed.

— Dr. Ian Dunbar Founder, Association of Pet Dog Trainers

It was always a pleasure to have Sophia in my workshops. She was interested, and interesting. Her enthusiasm was infectious to the other students. Later, when we shared a stage during seminars, she was an enthusiastic and tireless teacher. She was a prolific writer, addressing issues of great importance to pet owners around the world. I was very sad to hear of Sophia’s death. My deepest condolences to Sophia’s family and colleagues.

— Bob Bailey Founder, Operant Conditioning Workshops, Animal Behavior Analysis and Clicker Training Pioneer

Having Sophia as a mentor and friend remains a very great honor. She cared deeply for animals, and taught us to make their lives better. Sophia came to Bali at her own expense to help us. She worked tirelessly to show that animals have feelings, and taught our staff how to work with fearful and aggressive animals.

We use her training materials Her translated animal-posture posters are in Bali schools, where children learn love and respect for animals through Sophia’s heart and teachings. Bali continues to benefit from Sophia’s understanding, kindness and enduring love of animals. Sophia inspired us all. Her legacy will live on in Bali. Rest in peace, dear Sophia.

— Janice Girardi Founder & Director, Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA)

The veterinary and animal behavior communities lost a true champion for our pets with the passing of Dr. Sophia Yin. She was a strong advocate for humane, science-based, positive-reinforcement training. However, I believe that her greatest contribution was her visionary and tireless promotion of low-stress handling to veterinarians, veterinary students and all animal professionals. Her death has left a huge void in the world of animal behavior, but left perhaps even a greater void for all of the veterinary patients and clients who have benefitted from her teaching.

— Melissa Bain, DVM Associate Professor of Clinical Animal Behavior, UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine

Sophia Yin was a leader and an innovator in the field of dog training —so positive, so skilled and so productive. Her incredible output of high-quality books, videos, blogs and seminars helped thousands of people and animals. An advocate for positive, science-based training and gentle treatment of our pets, Sophia will be missed by cats, dogs, behaviorists, trainers, veterinarians and vet techs.

She made all of our lives better and our relationships with each other richer. That is the beautiful legacy she leaves behind.

— Karen London, PhD Certified Animal Behaviorist

Along with so many others, I was devastated when I learned of the sudden passing of fellow veterinarian and admired animal behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin. Sophia and I were classmates in veterinary school at UC Davis. Although we traveled in different circles of friends during those wondrous and difficult vetschool years, I will always remember her with a beautiful smile on her face! She was the top of our class, incredibly intelligent; she won every scholarship and award possible.

She was already thinking outside the box during those early years by writing and publishing (through her own self-formed publishing company) a veterinary “nerd book.” Anyone who has graduated from vet school knows exactly what I am referring to, a small pocket notebook that lists all the critical facts, diagnoses and drug dosages vet students need to survive their senior clinical year. This nerd book has since been adopted by every veterinary school in the country.

Sophia had a soulful understanding of animals, and helped all veterinarians and their staffs learn how to better understand and manage the intense fear a pet can feel when it comes into our clinics. We were lucky to have her so close to us in the San Francisco Bay Area; Sophia was “the” person to whom we referred our most difficult behavior cases.

The world has lost a truly gentle, incredibly intelligent and pioneering veterinarian as well as a hero and humane advocate for all animals.

— Jenny Taylor, DVM Founder, Creature Comforts Holistic Veterinary Center

Dr. Sophia Yin’s presence in any forum had a magnetizing effect. We were all drawn to her because she exuded passion and enthusiasm. Dr. Yin always shared her expertise in a generous and inclusive manner. Her work and dedication to lower stress levels for dogs and cats, veterinary professionals, and trainers and groomers set the ball in motion for every caregiver to look at medical and husbandry care through empathetic and compassionate eyes. It is an absolute honor to have learned from her, and to have shared experiences with both domestic and exotic species with her over the years. Dr. Yin will be missed beyond words.

— Laura Monaco Torelli Founder, Animal Behavior Training Concepts

Sophia was a vibrant member of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. She served on the executive board and several committees for many years, and co-wrote some of our position statements. Over the years that I’ve known her, she strongly believed in AVSAB’s mission, and always actively helped us reach out to those who wanted information about animal-friendly training and behavior modification, and decreasing patients’ stress during veterinary visits. Many of our members gravitated toward veterinary behavior because of Sophia’s work and guidance, and many others used her handouts and videos regularly when treating behavior patients. I believe that I speak for the majority of our members when I say that Sophia’s passing has left a great emptiness, and those of us remaining will honor her memory by carrying on with what she started.

— Valli Parthasarathy, PhD, DVM Immediate Past President, AVSAB

What impressed me most about Sophia Yin was her apparently unflagging drive, crackling intelligence and sheer number of talents. Is it really possible to learn and practice a variety of behavior modification strategies; have a clinical practice; teach college classes; go on the speaking circuit; develop a fantastic and much-needed remote food dispenser; commit to perfection and entrepreneurship; perform and publish research projects; deliver dynamic outreach materials for the public, the behavior community and veterinarians; and publish one-of-a-kind books layered with specific demonstration pictures and accompanied by detailed how-to/ how-come videos? Really? Of course, it’s not possible! Yet, she did!

I use her materials every day in my work. I, like many others, refer clients to her books and videos, veterinarians to her Low Stress Handling information, and members of the public to her blog or Facebook page. I do my job better because of these resources.

Sophia’s talent, energy and care as a healer will live on in these materials. She will not be forgotten by the thousands of people she helped and influenced. We must continue to build on the amazing breadth of talent and knowledge shared by this one mighty firecracker of a veterinarian. We must find a way to keep her contributions alive, sparking more to lead the fearfree, science-based animal behavior movement in both their personal and professional lives.

We are grieving and many of us are tired, but let us kindle the fire she built and start more. Our profession is doing important work. Teaching people to respectfully problem-solve with animals can help them reach for non-violent solutions to intrapersonal and societal problems as well. While many of us may not burn as bright, we can still create lasting change, especially if we use the scaffolding Sophia created.

Sophia: We always needed you far more than you needed us. You brought blazing reality to the emotional dangers we face and to the amount of work yet to be done. You are greatly missed.

— E’Lise Christensen, DVM, DACVB Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist

“Be more Sophia Yin” is an expression in my home. We use it to mean, “You’re reinforcing the wrong behavior. The dog doesn’t understand what you want.” Dog lovers would be well served to adopt this phrase. To “Be more Sophia Yin” is to bring clear communication and fun to your training. It is to leave myths and stereotypes at the door and embrace canine ethology and cognition research and the science of learning and training. It is to embrace enjoyment and cooperation as opposed to coercion or brute force as the path to behavior change. Sophia Yin spent a lifetime connecting animal lovers and practitioners to techniques that help companion animals feel safer and happier. I am devastated that Sophia Yin is no longer with us, and forever thankful that her legacy remains.

— Julie Hecht, MSc Canine Behavioral Researcher and Science Writer

Part of the work I do as a force-free trainer is to discourage the use of punitive training methods and to dispel outdated behavior myths that continue to pervade the public’s consciousness. Changing the way people interact and teach their dogs can be very challenging, and sometimes I feel like I’m walking up a very steep hill that never ends.

There are certain people who make the walk easier, though, people I look up to and from whom I find the strength I need to continue teaching— people who make perfect sense and energize me with their knowledge and expertise. Sophia Yin was one of them. She was a force for humane training, and helped animal lovers all over the world better understand their pets. She was a valued contributor to my Positively site, and her posts were always widely shared and appreciated by a large pet-loving audience. She was someone I looked up to, admiring her tenacity and the candor with which she spoke.

Those of us whose lives she touched will never be the same, and her loss is profound on so many levels. I will continue to share her work far and wide so that pet lovers still benefit from her wisdom, passion and desire to make the world a better place for pets and the people who love them.

— Victoria Stilwell Author, It’s Me or the Dog, Train Your Dog Positively

 

Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.