Update: On September 28, 2014, Dr. Yin passed away. Read more here.
Soon after Sophia Yin, DVM, graduated from veterinary school in 1993 and started in private practice in California, she realized that many of the animals she saw didn’t have health problems. They had behavioral problems.
She saw cats that urinated on the couch instead of in their litter boxes, dogs that snapped while seemingly unprovoked or that barked at nothing, and animals of all types that were nervous, aggressive or just scared.
The owners needed guidance on how to help their pets fit into the family and live happier lives, but a 20-minute appointment at the vet’s office didn’t provide enough time. And though her training at the University of California, Davis, had given Dr. Yin confidence in medical matters, it didn’t give her much insight into why an animal acted the way it did.
So she set about teaching herself. Yin went back to UC Davis and earned a master’s in animal science with an emphasis on animal behavior—from chickens to wolves to horses to garden-variety cats and dogs.
Along the way, she forged a new career path as a writer, speaker, peer educator and consultant specializing in animal behavior, especially those “problem children” whose owners have almost given up on them.
That meant out with old-fashioned training techniques like force and some popularly held beliefs, including the thought that animal behavior always has to do with asserting dominance. Instead, Yin has developed a kinder, gentler but very consistent philosophy of positive reinforcement, based on understanding animals’ motivations and how to best approach them to get the desired results.
“There is always an answer,” says Yin, 43, still based in Davis. “But if we as vets can’t help (our clients) find the answer, it’s frustrating to them, and it’s harder for them to bond with their pet because they’re always angry with the pet or they just can’t get them to do what they want them to do.”
A Very Busy Life
For a decade, Yin has built a cottage industry on animal behavior: She teaches her training methods to clients and their pets. She developed a dog-training system for the now-defunct Sharper Image, utilizing her positive-reinforcement method of “training by treats.”
She frequently presents behavioral seminars at professional conferences. She serves as a consultant to such groups as the Santa Barbara Zoo, where she used behavioral training to help the zoo’s lions relax.
She has been published widely, including a stint as pet columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and has written several books. Her most recent book and DVD, “Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats”(CattleDog Publishing, $149), is aimed at helping veterinarians and support staff better approach their furry clients. It grew out of her teaching, as she found that even the best-intentioned people sometimes lack an understanding of how to approach animals.
“If you went to a physical therapist and they just grabbed you and shoved you in a chair, you wouldn’t trust them,” Yin says. “And yet, that’s what we do with dogs and cats all the time. We just move them. Nobody ever taught us the right way to do it.”
Through it all, her timing has been good.
For practical reasons, veterinarians have shown increased interest in animal behavior over the past several years. Understanding behavioral cues can help veterinarians recognize health problems and provide more safe and efficient care, says John Ciribassi, DVM, immediate past president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. Veterinary care goes much more smoothly for all involved if the animal is not under stress; even test results are more reliable and representative in non-stressed animals, Ciribassi says.
And, as Yin found in her early days in practice, vets are increasingly being asked to help solve pet behavioral problems.
“If veterinarians are not able to help the owner return behavior problems to normal behavior, owners may turn to those who are less competent for advice or may even give up or euthanize the animal,” says Bonnie Beaver, DVM, executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and also a former president of the American Veterinary Medical Assn.
By better understanding animal behavior, Beaver says, veterinarians “can keep a strong human-animal bond for our clients and their pets, which is good for everyone.”
Davis resident Renvelyn Grey can attest to that. Grey and her husband, Bruce Fisher, turned to Yin several years ago after they adopted a Basenji named Berkley who had a history of biting. Grey had had Basenjis as pets since 1966 and knew how to deal with the breed’s quirky temperament. She knew she was Berkley’s last hope, and she felt she could handle him.
But one night, soon after adopting Berkley, Grey was getting into bed and reached over to kiss Berkley. He bit her. Realizing she was in over her head, she called Yin.
Yin helped Grey unravel the source of Berkley’s unpredictable aggression—it turned out the dog was scared of women—and worked with her on gaining Berkley’s trust. A key Yin technique required that Berkley be tethered to Grey’s waist as she went about her daily business. During these long sessions, Grey ignored aggressive behavior; good behavior was rewarded with bits of kibble. If Berkley wasn’t at Grey’s side, he was sheltered in his crate, which he considered safe. The training continued for months.
Now nearly 8 years old, Berkley “is the best dog I’ve ever had,” Grey says. “And I really give the credit to Sophia. I felt incredibly confident with Sophia’s persistence and her knowledge and her ability to understand an animal.”
Berkley was a particularly stubborn case, Yin says. Many animals start to “get it” after a single session, and most problems are largely corrected after three sessions. “I’m not asking them to do calculus,” she says, laughing. “I’m asking them to behave naturally.”
The principles she used with Berkley are useful across breeds and in response to many types of problems, she says.
First, she likes to use food as a motivator. Some animals don’t care about praise or affection, but they all have to eat. Second, rewards must be consistent. Animals won’t learn if they are not. Finally, she believes inappropriate force or negative reinforcement should never be used.
“The animal may do what you want, but it’s because they’re fearful, and they’re not happy,” she says. “And that is not what we want.”