Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian and internationally recognized pioneer in the field of animal behavior as it relates to training pets, died Sept. 28 of suicide at her Davis, Calif., home, according to the Yolo County coroner’s office. She was 48.
Word of her death circulated widely on Facebook and other websites, drawing an outpouring of shock and grief from professional colleagues and pet lovers. In addition to her academic research on handling animals, Dr. Yin was celebrated for her dedication to improving the lives of pets and their relationships with human companions.
“How I’d like to remember her is seeing her around town, walking her beloved dog Jonesy, continually using the positive reinforcement techniques that she promoted,” Dr. Melissa Bain, a University of California, Davis veterinary behaviorist, said in a written statement issued by the School of Veterinary Medicine.
“Jonesy would light up when she was working with him, which is how people would when they listened to her promoting force-free methods of training.”
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Dr. Yin was at the forefront of a humane approach to handling animals that emphasizes positive reinforcement of behavior and reducing their fears and anxieties, colleagues said. The movement is a shift from methods that seek to force behavior through coercion or dominance popularized by traditional trainers, including TV “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan.
Dr. Yin taught animal owners and trainers to reward animals for positive behaviors as they occur and to remove rewards for bad behavior. In addition, she developed and promoted “low-stress handling” techniques for treating and working with animals in veterinary clinics, zoos, shelters, groomers and other care settings.
She shared her research and methods with professionals and the public in academic journals, popular magazines, instructional materials and books, including “Perfect Puppy in 7 Days,” “How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves,” and “Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats.” She discussed and taught low-stress techniques at seminars and training events in the United States, Canada and Germany.
Besides consulting for zoos and animal shelters, she served as an animal behavior expert for TV shows on Animal Planet and other channels. She spent five years as a lecturer in the UC Davis animal science department and wrote an award-winning pet column for the San Francisco Chronicle.
“She was a blend of science and soul,” said Dr. Marty Becker, a prominent veterinarian, author and expert on pet care. “She was one of the pioneers at looking at the emotional well-being of pets. As professionals, we’re focused on the physical well-being in caring for animals, and she knew there was another side to that.”
Dr. Yin was born in 1966. According to a biography at her website, drsophiayin.com, she wanted to be a veterinarian since she was a child. She earned a biochemistry degree with highest honors in 1989 and received a veterinary degree in 1993 from UC Davis.
After working in private practice, she discovered that many pets were euthanized because of behavior problems rather than medical reasons. She returned to UC Davis to study animal behavior and earned a master’s degree in animal science in 2001.
Dr. Yin belonged to professional associations and was a leader in animal behavior groups, including the American Humane Association and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. In addition to receiving the Health Profession’s Regents’ Scholar Award from the UC Davis veterinary school in 1990, she was honored by writers’ associations for her popular newspaper columns on pet care.
“She had such a way of speaking to people and explaining things to them in lay person’s term,” said Dr. Jim Wilson, a mentor and former UC Davis veterinary professor.
“She was intense at perfecting everything she did,” he added. “She was so intense at what she loved to do, which was helping animals live better lives and helping people who love them.”