Dr. Sophia Yin leaves legacy of compassion, insight

Death of celebrated veterinary behaviorist brings shock, grief

October 1, 2014 (published)
By Christy Corp-Minamiji, DVM

Photo courtesy of
Dr. Sophia Yin’s work in animal behavior guided fellow veterinarians and pet owners alike.

Dr. Sophia Yin spoke for the voiceless. The renowned veterinary behaviorist’s own voice and work will outlive her sudden, tragic death.

On Sept. 29, Dr. Yin committed suicide. She was 48.

News of her death elicited an outpouring of sorrow in veterinary circles and expressions of profound admiration for Dr. Yin, a superstar in the animal-behavior arena. Whether they knew her personally or only knew of her, numerous veterinarians said Dr. Yin strongly influenced their practice.

Posting on a message board of the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession, Dr. Maren Bell Jones summed up the feelings of many when she wrote, “I feel like I've lost a mentor from afar.”

A veterinarian in Missouri who trains working and performance dogs in her free time, Dr. Bell Jones said she uses handling techniques taught and popularized by Dr. Yin that minimize stress to the animals. She also routinely refers clients struggling with pet behavior problems to Dr. Yin’s “Learn to Earn” method of teaching good manners to dogs using consistency and rewards.

Losing Dr. Yin is “devastating … to both veterinary medicine and animal behavior and training,” Dr. Bell Jones said.

A prolific writer and speaker, Dr. Yin worked as an animal-behavior consultant in Northern California. She graduated from the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine in 1993. Her interest in animal behavior arose soon after.

According to the biographical sketch on her website, “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.”

The biography goes on to explain: “She found that because pets don’t understand spoken language, they rely on body language plus desired or undesired consequences in order to learn. This means that humans must be aware of their movement and actions because every move they make while interacting with the pet influences the animal’s behavior and perception of them.”

This recognition became Dr. Yin’s life’s work. She had a broad reach, using videos and books to share her philosophy and techniques with pet owners and veterinary professionals alike. shows five titles to her credit: How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves; Perfect Puppy in 7 Days; The Small Animal Veterinary Nerdbook; Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs and Cats: Techniques for Developing Patients Who Love Their Visits; and Teaching Fido to Learn.

Her website shows a full calendar of speaking engagements scheduled through October 2015 for events taking place across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Despite her celebrity, Dr. Yin wasn’t given to grandstanding. Dr. Carl Singer, a 1995 UC Davis veterinary school alumnus, remembers Dr. Yin as a friend and fellow student. He describes her as “the most quietly impressive veterinarian I have known.”

Via email, Dr. Singer reminisced about meeting Dr. Yin for lunch even some years after graduation. "This was something many of us as classmates talked about doing but Sophia actually showed up,” he said.

“The ‘quiet’ aspect was just who she was,” Dr. Singer continued. “Anything that she did or shared was not about attention to herself but ... that what she had to say was important.”

In VIN message-board post, Dr. Singer observed: “We, her colleagues, wanted to know what made the animals tick ... physiologically. She went beyond that, and started with what they felt and thought, how they reacted, in order to understand them the best and approach them on their terms.”

Dr. Fiia Jokela, a private practice veterinarian, clinic owner in Indiana and one-time continuing-education student of Dr. Yin’s, said her compassion extended to humans, too. “You felt safe admitting your ignorance around Sophia,” Dr. Jokela said. “And you blossomed under her guidance and discovered you could join in with her to change the world!”

Not only that, Dr. Jokela said, “She absolutely changed the world for so many.”

Before learning from Dr. Yin, Dr. Jokela said she knew nothing about veterinary behavior. “I felt ashamed when clients asked for help and I did not know what to say,” she admitted. “Sophia brought behavior medicine to everyday practice and made it accessible to every veterinarian ….”

Sophie Liu, a second-year student at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, remembered Dr. Yin as a mentor whose warmth and generosity helped shape her developing career.

In an email to the VIN News Service, Ms. Liu wrote: “She was the type of person who — upon receiving a random e-mail by an awkward, nervous teenager (me) — eagerly invited me to her office in Davis, California, and immediately swept me up into her work.

“I was an aimless 16-year-old with an inkling of fondness for animal behavior and a horribly aggressive dog… I had nothing to offer her but uncertainty and failure. I was nobody with nothing. But Sophia graciously took me up, assigned me to projects, encouraged me to debate concepts with her, and pushed me to view medicine and behavior in ways I'd never dreamed of.”

Ms. Liu described Dr. Yin as demanding yet unwaveringly supportive: “Sophia pushed me — sometimes to the brink of frustration and tears — but she always rejoiced with a wide smile and twinkling eyes when I finally arrived at the correct answer… She believed in me, supported me, and guided me — especially as I contemplated giving up, especially as I made mistakes …"

Illustrating how Dr. Yin’s influence is likely to persist into the future, Ms. Liu said: “I have lost my friend, my mentor, and my inspiration. Continuing to do this work and to continue her legacy — without her — is painful beyond words, and I only hope that I can rekindle that spark for behavior medicine that Sophia lit in me.”

Editor's note: A special Rounds session, "Dealing With Your and Your Colleagues' Stress and Depression," is scheduled for the VIN community at 9 p.m. Eastern on October 5. Dr. James Wilson, a friend and mentor to Dr. Yin, will open the session with a few words, and social worker Susan Cohen will lead the discussion. Veterinarians who are not VIN members may view a transcript after the session by emailing

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