Dr. Sophia Yin's Loss Is Profound


Dr. Sophia Yin was a frequent presenter at veterinary conferences and dog training conferences around the world. Unlike most veterinarians, she enjoyed a huge fan base of not only veterinarians, but also dog trainers, groomers and pet owners. Sophia Yin unexpectedly passed away today (September 29).

Dr. Yin’s  mission in life was to improve our understanding of animals and their behavior so that we can care for, appreciate and enjoy our time with them better. If changing the world was a goal, she achieved that through her many books and handouts on pet behavior. Her most recent, now considered a bible, “Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats.” Through her YouTube page, and Facebook following Dr. Yin reached countless pet owners.

To make the world better for animals – and as a demonstration of her underlying generosity, Dr. Yin offered a variety of informational free handouts. She could have charged. She did not.

Ever since she was a child, Sophia wanted to be a veterinarian, and in 1993, her dream came true. But once out in private practice, she quickly realized that more pets were euthanized due to behavior problems than medical ones. She went back to school to study animal behavior, and earned her Master’s in Animal Science in 2001 from UC Davis where she studied vocal communication in dogs and worked on behavior modification in horses, giraffes, ostriches, and chickens. She was also the award-winning pet columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and at least once won a Dog Writer’s Association Award for best newspaper column, up against my column. Upon receiving her degree focused on animal behavior, Dr. Yin served for five years as a lecturer in the UC Davis Animal Science Department. Through these and an eclectic collection of other animal behavior experiences, she came to realize the true secret to successful behavior modification: be kind, thoughtful and patient.

Sophia learned that every pet needs a human who can lead. Not like a boss, but like a partner in a dance—someone who gives clear signals, rewards desirable behavior as it occurs, removes rewards for inappropriate behavior immediately, and sticks to the plan consistently until the new, good behavior is a habit.

Among a long, long list of credits, Dr. Yin was on the executive board for the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) Handling Guidelines Committee, and the American Humane Association (AHA) Animal Behavior and Training Advisory Committee (which I chose her for). She’s appeared on several Animal Planet shows, and I had the pleasure of interviewing her many times on the radio, YouTube videos and print stories.

From a 2009  newspaper column, here’s one of many times that I spoke with Dr. Yin:

The veterinarian shakes the carrier, and the cat drops to the floor with a thud. The dog groomer looks like she’s wrestling with her canine client, as she attempts to clip nails. These are very common practices, but they’re wrong, says veterinarian and applied animal behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin, author of “Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats.” She hopes this ground-breaking book will change how pets are dealt with at veterinary practices, shelters, groomers and even in our homes.

Yin says Cesar Millan, TV’s ‘dog whisperer’ seems to have success by forcing the dogs in what he calls submission. Yin says too many veterinary professionals and groomers use the same techniques every day. Yin concedes she once did too, “It’s what I was taught, and I didn’t know any better than using force,” she says. “For us, at that time, what mattered is that we were able to get the procedure completed.”

Yin continues, “What he (Millan) says he does is to make himself a pack leader. That’s not the case. What he’s really doing (called learned helplessness) is like if you’re afraid of spiders and freaking out because they’re all around you. But you’re being forcibly restrained. You finally realize you are helpless; you can’t do a thing about it. You finally give up. But that doesn’t mean you are any less anxious. In fact, you are likely to be more afraid. Forcible techniques don’t help, except to intensify fear. The goal is to implement techniques help to make the pet more secure.”

The outcome of force may cause a previously content and amicable dog or cat to have other problems. For example, Yin says that one cat named Skippy was so terrified of vet visits, he simply didn’t go. The owners did hire someone to trim nails in their home. However, the cat was terrified of him. As a result, Skippy has become aggressive to any stranger entering the house.

For cats or dogs who detest having their nails trimmed, the process to change that mind-set is called desensitization and counter-conditioning. Take the clipper out and simply feed your dog as you hold the clipper. Yin adds, “Now, touch the dog’s feet and offer a treat. Stop giving the treat as you stop the handling. Soon, the pet will figure out, ‘wow, this is fun, she touches me and I get fed.” Yin adds that a veterinary professional or groomer should take the time – and we’re only talking 10 minutes or so – to desensitize the dog rather than to allow the anxiety to heighten with each visit.

You can even teach a cat to actually enjoy or at least accept taking a pill. Yin says all cat owners should be instructed to purchase a pill gun device (available at some pet stores and online), and place some moist food, or baby food on it. Once every few days, offer the treat. A few months or a few years later, when the cat does really needs to accept a pill, he’ll likely be happy about taking the treat or baby food as he always has.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, on average, cats visit the veterinarian about half as often as dogs.  As a result, there are many cats who die from diseases which may have been treated if only they were discovered earlier.  Many more cats simply don’t get treatment because visiting the veterinarian is such an ordeal.

From the cat’s point of view, the trauma begins when the carrier is pulled out. Cats know exactly what that means. Some cats desperately attempt to run off, others hide. The owner feels awful because he has to stuff one very distressed cat into the carrier, and the cat may even be thinking ‘I’m going to die.’

There is an alternative, says Yin. “Cats are actually sometimes easier to train than dogs, and you can teach them to go right into the carrier on command. Begin by keeping the carrier out all the time. Drop treats and kibble around it. The cat’s curiosity and hunger will take over. Once the cat is willing to eat near the carrier, place the entire meal inside.  Soon the cat may even choose to sleep inside the carrier because it’s a secure place.”

Once the cat feels comfortable inside the carrier, walk to another room in your house with the carrier, unzip and let the cat hop out. Repeat and repeat many times. Now, finally, just before dinner time, take tabby for a car ride. Head around the block and return home to give your cat dinner. So, instead of the destination being a vet office, it’s a yummy meal.

Of course, puppies and kittens can easily be desensitized to veterinary clinics. “Take them there for treats,” says Yin. “My dog loved the veterinary clinic because it’s a fun place, good things happen there.”

“Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats” includes 1,600 photos with captions describing various training techniques. Still, it’s sometimes better to watch, and a DVD, included with the book, features many demonstrations.

©Steve Dale PetWorld, LLC; Tribune Content Agency

It was an honor, and pleasure to know Dr. Yin.  I admired her as a presenter, and communicator. The messages will always be remembered, and communicated by me and a legion of followers. If she only knew how profound her impact was and will continue to be.