My Friend Sophia

The text message was like a punch in the gut . . . “Sophia Yin passed away. Tragic!”

How could this be? It was so sudden, so unexpected. Then came the news. It was suicide. More confusion. More pained thoughts. I decided I just needed to remember her as I knew her.

SophiaYinJumpingYou see, Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM was unstodgy and atypical in so many ways. I remember our first meeting at an Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) conference at which we were both presenting. She was nervous about how her talk would be received. I was antsy about mine too, so we talked our way through the nerves, got the butterflies in our stomachs to fly in formation and had a blast. During the post-banquet meal we literally bumped into each other on the dance floor (Well, it was more that I stumbled into her). I was blown away when Sophia busted some serious moves she had learned in a hip-hop class. She then proceeded to teach this rhythmically-challenged old cop a step or two. That was her way—sharing the joy she found in the things she knew.

Through the years we saw each other off and on at conferences. At one such gathering she asked Jen and me to participate in beta-testing a training device she had developed. We gladly signed the non-disclosure agreement and watched her demonstrate was to be the Treat & Train marketed to the masses by the Sharper Image™. We loved the device and gave her feedback on it and then watched as the gadget-hawking company horribly mis-marketed her brainchild. We followed the ups and downs as she kept it alive with modifications and name changes with other partner companies. It is only through Sophia’s perseverance that the device survived and thrived to remain one of our favorite training tools. That was her way—turning stumbling blocks into stepping stones.

While at in Seattle for the 2009 American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Sophia came and visited us with her friend and colleague, Dr. Valli Parthasarathy, DVM. They were both committed to furthering animal welfare through their work as veterinary behaviorists. Sophia was a strong proponent of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) and its enlightened approach to animal training and behavior modification ( Beyond that she had just completed an amazing project “Low Stress Handling, Restraint, and Behavior Modification of Dogs and Cats”—a text book and DVD combo for veterinarians and other care-providers who handle animals. Sophia didn’t just live by her animal-friendly beliefs; she shared them in marvelously accessible ways. That was her way—innovate as you put principles over methods.

A couple of years later Sophia asked me to review and comment on one of her blog posts about a research paper. I read her post and the underlying study and told her that I thought the study was flawed and the authors’ conclusions were overbroad. We each argued our points and in the end she chose not to post my comment. Still, our respect for each other never waned. We both trusted that while all too often the only thing two dog trainers can agree on is what the another dog trainer is doing wrong that was not the case with us. At our cores we were aligned in our respect for dogs’ ability to learn from the consequences of their choices and that in training those consequences should more often than not be something the animal wants to experience again. That was her way—to stand for her beliefs while still respecting others principled choices.

As you can see Sophia Yin was an amazing individual. I choose not to dwell upon the whys of her departure from this Earth, but instead to remember her as a brilliant star that burned brightly enough to change many a ship’s course.

7 Responses to My Friend Sophia

  1. Kate Mornement says:

    Beautifully said, Steve.

  2. Linzey Zoccola says:

    Thank you for this. My heart has been aching and this reminded me to celebrate her life. Thank you.

  3. Linzey Zoccola says:

    Thank you for your blog post. It truly offered me peace and reminded me to celebrate her life, also.

    I did not know she designed the treat and train and hope this little story brings you a moment of comfort.

    My disability, like many others, is ever changing. A few years after recieving my first service dog I needed surgery, which went horribly wrong and landed me bed bound for months. Winston, my charming yellow lab with a serious working ethic handled it all effortlessly. We managed reinforcement from bed pretty well and got through boredom with shaping games and capturing things to name. Admittedly, I was more bored than he was but he let me think I was doing it for his boredom.

    The real challenge came when I couldn’t emotionally or physically handle bed rest anymore (5 1/2 months later) and my doctors admitted me into orthopedic rehab.

    My family had always taken sick and vacation time to accompany me to the hospital, giving me dog walkers and dog care takers for my service dog. But this stay was going to be weeks (or months) and I literally panicked at the idea of going without Winston & my family.

    My first hurdle was who would give him potty breaks until I was able to, and brush him, and help give him mental breaks. Phila Pets stepped in and took over – 4 scheduled walks daily, 2 with feeding assistance, 1 with ball time and 1 with grooming. That was settled easily.

    Then came the tough part. How would I reinforce him – sure, if I dropped my treat bag he could retrieve it. But it was torture and if it landed and everything spilled, I’d get the bag but the treats would be on the floor.

    Then someone mentioned this new tool – the Treat and Train – which was quickly renamed by Winston as – God. And suddenly, with a few clicks of a mouse, I was able to call the hospital and get the complete care I needed.

    With Winston, and God (lol) I was able to for the first time in my life be truly independent. Winston was my life line, and helped me not only physically but emotionally the entire 7 weeks in rehab.

    Winston learned new cues there – like CALL BELL – where he’d tug the call bell off the wall and put it in my hand. He learned “towel!” To run into my bathroom and get a papertowel from the wall mount and bring it to me and most importantly his basic “get help” cue was now modified to leave me, go down the hall and around the corner to the nurses station. He was my best friend, and without the treat and train I could never had gotten through that.

    I slept with the remote on a coil around my wrist, and knew he was there and together we’d work through any challenge – and I wasn’t alone, ever.

    Sophia gave me that gift. <3

  4. Carolyn Clark says:

    Thank you for this wonderful remembrance, Steve. I appreciate i so much. And the accompanying photo is one of my favourites.

  5. Rosemary says:

    Thank you for writing such an honest and human tribute to Dr. Yin. As you say, the reasons she chose to leave this Earth now are not nearly as important as her having lived and having lit the way for the many that have followed her vision and will continue to follow it. Her body may be gone but her legacy will live on. That is the true definition of immortality, she “broke the code.” Good for you Dr. Yin and thank you for showing us the way. Good and fun travels to you.

  6. Well written Steve, thank-you, we will all miss our Dr. Sophia Yin.

  7. Nick Hof says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Steve. I never met her, but will continue to learn from the many great things she left behind for us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *