January 15, 2015


 Behavior pioneer inspired many to learn humane, positive techniques

​The late Dr. Sophia Yin was known for her books and lectures, but few really knew her

Posted Dec. 30, 2014

Passionate. Dedicated. Focused.

Those who knew Dr. Sophia Yin frequently used these words to describe her. The 48-year-old animal behavior expert spent her life advocating humane handling techniques, be it through lectures or the videos, books, and posters she produced. Her single-minded focus helped raise awareness of proper behavior training, but it also appears to have come at a great personal cost. Dr. Yin committed suicide on Sept. 28, 2014, at her home in Davis, California. 

What she did in two decades, most in 40 years can’t do. She left volumes of work that will teach others for a long time to come.”
Dr. Fiia Jokela, owner,
Deer Run Animal Hospital,
Schererville, Indiana

In the wake of her death, Dr. Yin has left an enduring legacy that will continue to impact the veterinary profession and pet-owning public. At the same time, colleagues and friends remain baffled as to how such an exuberant personality could have resorted to such measures.

The nerdiest of all

Dr. Yin showed great potential even in veterinary school. She attended the University of California-Davis for both her undergraduate and DVM-degree studies. In 1992, when she was a third-year veterinary student, she and her classmates would compile clinically useful notes in pocket-sized binders, which they called “nerdbooks.” “Because of her well-honed note-taking and organizational skills, Dr. Yin and her compilation were soon deemed the nerdiest. Fellow students offered to buy her book and she willingly shared her pages,” according to www.drsophiayin.com.

Dr. Yin parlayed this into an opportunity to publish her own textbook. More than 4,500 copies of “The Small Animal Veterinary Nerdbook” were sold in the first year of the first printing in 2000. Now in its third edition, the Nerdbook has seen total sales of more than 30,000 copies.

Also, after graduation in 1993, she went into private practice, but according to a Sept. 30, 2014, UC-Davis press release on Dr. Yin: “She quickly realized that more pets were euthanized due to behavior problems than medical ones.”

This inspired her to return to the university to earn her master’s in animal behavior in 2001. Dr. Yin studied vocal communication in dogs and worked with behavior modification in horses, giraffes, ostriches, and chickens. Dr. Edward O. Price vividly remembers Dr. Yin as a student in his animal behavior class at UCD.

“Of all the graduate students I had over my 36-year career, Sophia was one of only two students who basically designed and carried out her thesis research project almost completely independent from my assistance. Since the Department of Animal Science did not house dogs or cats, she got her own subjects (dogs), collected her data, and wrote her thesis without asking for a dime for anything. I read her thesis, of course, and offered comments and handled other administrative responsibilities of a major professor, and that was about it,” Dr. Price said. 

Dr. Sophia Yin gave this photo to Dr. Edward Price to use as an illustration of mobile target training, in which the animal is rewarded—usually with food—for touching an object such as the ball at the end of the pole she is holding. Once the animal learns that touching the object may result in a reward, the object can be used to facilitate leading the animal to anywhere in its environment. In the case of horses, the object could be used to entice an animal to go from a corral to a stall or horse trailer. (Courtesy of Dr. Edward Price)

During this time, she also became a pet columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

After receiving her master’s, Dr. Yin served for five years as a lecturer in the UC-Davis Animal Science Department. She taught three undergraduate courses in domestic animal behavior and supervised students in various animal training and behavior research projects.

Dr. Yin eventually struck out on her own, building her personal brand, conducting positive reinforcement training, and teaching humane handling of veterinary patients. Dr. Yin was relentless. Not only did she make house calls for behavior issues and work for San Francisco Veterinary Specialists, but also, she found time to write for numerous publications, publish research findings, and lecture internationally on animal behavior. Dr. Yin also appeared on shows such as “Dogs 101” on Animal Planet as a behavior expert.

That’s not to mention, she wrote three books—“Perfect Puppy in 7 Days,” “How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves,” and “Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats”—at the pace of one book a year from 2009-2011. Known for her business savvy, Dr. Yin formed her own company, Cattle Dog Publishing, to handle all of the educational materials she created for veterinary professionals and pet owners.

On a mission

Dr. Fiia Jokela, owner of Deer Run Animal Hospital in Schererville, Indiana, is one of the many veterinarians who say Dr. Yin has inspired them to learn more about animal behavior and humane handling techniques.

“She changed my life. She made me feel like I could do (behavior training). ... She made it seem so simple—she brought it down to a level for everybody to understand,” Dr. Jokela said. “She kept putting out resource after resource. Her posters and everything else (were) so visual and great for instruction.”

Dr. Jokela recalls going to conferences and seeing Dr. Yin speak, but consistently in small rooms.

“I’m like ‘Why don’t these conferences give her a giant room? We’d all be in line to get in. Nobody used to be interested in behavior like that, but then we realized we all need to know it,” she said. “I remember anytime she talked, everyone was just mesmerized.”

Dr. Sophia Yin at Wolf Park in Battleground, Indiana. She spent time there learning wolf behavior and participating in a seminar in the early 2000s. (Courtesy of Dr. Edward Price/Photo by Monte Sloan)

Dr. John Ciribassi, president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, knew Dr. Yin through her time serving on the AVSAB board and the association’s committees; she was  society president in 2007-2008.

“She had a very single-minded need to educate pet owners and also vets and vet staff about how best to interact with, communicate (with), and handle pets we deal with. She had a very strong issue with a lot of the individuals who focus on punishment-based methods of managing behavior. Her life’s goal was to undo misinformation. That’s her biggest legacy,” Dr. Ciribassi said. “As far as I’m concerned, she revolutionized that aspect of training and behavior, for dogs and cats especially.”

He continued, “The other part of her life was media. She promoted herself. She had to because she was in business for herself, and you have to let people know you’re out there. She also used that skill to promote the profession and pet care.”

Most recently, Dr. Yin had been chairing the AVSAB Committee on Communication and was involved with media relations as well as revamping the AVSAB website. She also was working on developing an inaugural AVSAB conference in conjunction with the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians and the Academy of Veterinary Behavior Technicians, to be held in Las Vegas in 2015.  

Business savvy

Dr. Kelly Moffat, medical director at VCA Mesa Animal Hospital in Mesa, Arizona, was one of the few who knew Dr. Yin on a more personal level.

In 2007, after Dr. Moffat spoke at the AVMA Annual Convention on humane handling, Dr. Yin asked to come to her clinic to get ideas because she wanted to develop a book on low-stress handling. Dr. Yin stayed with her for a week and came to work every day, taking notes and video. They’d chat between appointments about ways to handle pets and techniques to help limit stress in both the patients and the veterinary staff.

“She had boundless energy. We’d go jogging, and after I finished, she’d double or triple the route,” she said.“I think she had a hard childhood; we didn’t talk about it much, but I know that was difficult for her. I also know she still saw her parents and helped them acquire and train a new puppy.”

The two stayed in touch over the years by video, chatting on their computers when they had free time. They’d talk about work and their personal lives, although Dr. Yin seemed to limit it to her pets and work.

“I have never seen her in a bad mood, ever. She was laughing and smiling when we’d meet at 6 a.m. on FaceTime, and she would be cracking jokes. I would email at midnight, and she’d be up and answer my emails. I think she slept less than me. I’d carp about work, but she would never complain,” said Dr. Moffat, who has been a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists since 2004.

“Part of her business model was to give out information and promote her business. I think some people—I don’t know if they were jealous of it—but they weren’t as nice to her because she was so business-oriented,” Dr. Moffat said.

She recalls a phone call with Dr. Yin after the latter gave a lecture to training groups in California. Afterward, they criticized Dr. Yin for promoting her business too much. “The reason she put her products there (was) to use (them) as visual aids. She has taken the time and effort to stage and develop thousands of pictures in these books and videos that demonstrated proper and successful techniques. I know people’s criticisms, even though she’d try to let roll them off, would bother her,” she said.

Yet, Dr. Yin was very giving, handing away hundreds of dollars’ worth of products to veterinarians and trainers at speaking engagements and continuing education meetings.

Dr. Moffat says she can’t recall Dr. Yin being in a romantic relationship any time she knew her. Dr. Yin never married or had children. Near the end of her life, she had been booked for speaking engagements into 2015 but started dropping out of commitments the week before she killed herself.

Dr. Moffat also says she doesn’t know the full story, but “things happened with the business beyond her control, and I think that’s what frustrated her so much, but I never knew she had personal problems that (would have) led to such an outcome. ... From what I got from some emails, things weren’t going well with the business. She put her life into that. And I don’t think she had anything to fall back on. I’m not sure how many close friends she had in California.”

She added, “What I figured out after all of this is that nobody knew her really well.”

Leaving a legacy

Indeed, for as widely known as Dr. Yin is throughout the world, her personal life remains somewhat a mystery. Her parents, Raymond and Jacqueline, could not be reached for the article.

Friends, family, and colleagues gather for the “Celebration of the Extraordinary Life of Dr. Sophia Yin” on Nov. 9 at Slide Hill Park in Davis, California. (Courtesy of the Dr. Sophia Yin Memorial Page)

According to one of her staffers, Dr. Yin was a talented pianist and even composed her own music. She was a member of the Traditional Tae Kwan Do Club and track team at UC-Davis and boxed as an amateur for two years before graduate school, she told the UC-Davis Dateline newsletter in 2004. Dr. Yin competed in the 106-pound division of the 1999 USA Boxing Women’s Championships and lost in the quarter final bout.

Dr. Yin enjoyed CrossFit, rock climbing, and running. She loved chocolate and the color pink but didn’t want to look too girly, said a staff member of Cattle Dog Publishing at a memorial that the employees held in her honor Nov. 9 at Slide Hill Park in Davis, California. Jonsey, Dr. Yin’s Jack Russell Terrier, was there. 

Shock and disbelief were the words commonly used in colleagues’ and friends’ reactions to Dr. Yin’s death. According to the Yolo County Coroner’s Office, Dr. Yin’s cause of death is asphyxia by hanging and has been ruled as suicide. No additional details will be released until the case is closed.  

Dr. Jokela said she could understand it if Dr. Yin felt burned out and failed to take care of herself because she was focused on taking care of others or her business, which happens often with veterinarians.

At the same time, she said, “It’s hard to wrap your head around why she felt that way, that suicide was the answer. I guess that’s the one thing she’s doing for us now: It’s a wake-up call that we need to support one another. How do we deal with the stressors and pain? It’s a wonderful profession, but it’s also very painful. Maybe she can save lives that way.”

But perhaps Dr. Yin’s greater legacy will be what she has done for the animal behavior community and pet-owning public.

“What she did in two decades, most in 40 years can’t do,” Dr. Jokela said. “She left volumes of work that will teach others for a long time to come.”  

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