If you’re subscribed to any animal-related news outlets, you may have heard that one of the most influential members of the animal behavior community passed away unexpectedly this week. Dr. Sophia Yin was incredibly helpful and influential to me as a first time dog owner, to other private pet owners all over the world, and on a much larger scale by working to further our understanding of how animals learn and react scientifically, and convey that to pet professionals everywhere. She was an incredible woman who worked tirelessly to improve the lives of animals. My dogs would be incredibly screwed up without her, and I know I’m not alone in that.
Dr. Sophia Yin was a veterinarian with an additional master’s degree in animal acience focusing on animal behavior. The was also a trainer, a teacher, a writer, an inventor, a presenter, and too many other things to list. By any measure, she was a successful pioneer in behavior science when veterinary medicine was still very much a male dominated field. She learned to train dogs with old fashioned punishment based methods and then spent her career studying the animals she trained and eventually became one of the biggest names in positive reinforcement based training. While much of her work was focused on dogs, Dr. Yin consulted with zoos, and worked with cats, chickens, rabbits, horses, and many other species. She was very gifted at taking the science and turning it into something anyone could understand, and she was generous enough to create free videos and articles demonstrating and explaining the techniques she advocated. The online resources were how I originally found her, and they instantly became the first place I looked when I needed dog advice.
Dr. Yin’s videos and commissioned drawings show that training is, as she put it, a “technical skill.” She emphasized that good timing and practice were needed before you started trying to communicate what you want to your pet so that they could clearly understand what you wanted of them. Understanding theory is important, but the focus on technique is something she excelled at. Her “Learn To Earn” program makes positive reinforcement training and gaining impulse control very manageable and easy for inexperienced trainers. Because timing is critical for rapid training, she helped develop the Treat & Train, which dispenses perfectly timed treats from a distance by remote control. This allows a single owner to train behaviors at a distance and avoid juggling treats when working on things like grooming.
Knowing that fearful and aggressive behavior at the vet’s office keeps many pets from going as often as they need to and limits the care veterinarians are able to provide while pets are in their office, Dr. Yin developed Low Stress Handling techniques for pet professionals such as veterinarians and groomers. These techniques allow pet professionals to decrease fear and aggressive behavior and teaches them to more safely restrain and examine pets that are fearful. She also offered simple instructions to pet owners to acclimate their cats and dogs to the types of handling they’ll receive at the vet’s office in her articles and columns
I’ve spent countless hours watching and reading her work, and despite living on the opposite side of the country and never meeting her, her loss hurts. She was one person who loved animals and found a unique way to help thousands of them. She saw the problems in her field and figured out how to create change in a big and positive way. I don’t know how her shoes can ever be filled, but I’m thankful for the work and resources she left behind. My heart goes out to her family, staff, and friends; I can’t imagine how painful this loss is for them.