On Monday Dr. Sophia Yin, one of the world’s most respected and important veterinary behaviorists, committed suicide. She was 48.
Dr. Yin was a pioneer in the field of force-free positive reinforcement dog training. It would be hard to overstate her contribution to the world of humane pet care. At School For The Dogs, there is not a day that goes by where we don’t reference one of her books or videos. She also developed the Treat & Train, the remote-controlled treat dispenser that is hands down my favorite dog training tool.
I saw Dr. Yin speak a couple of times, and have watched many of her videos. I was particularly moved by her appearance in the short film Tough Love, where she talks about her life with dogs prior to discovering positive reinforcement training. I related big time: As a child, I did things to my dog that I now think of as pretty awful. I yelled “No” in my deepest voice, bit his ear, forced him on his back and growled in his face. I empathized with her sorrow at remembering her initial approach to dog training.
Dr. Yin’s passing has been a cataclysmic event in the animal training and veterinary community, and is sparking some important conversations about the prevalence of depression among those who care for animals (Jessica Dolce wrote a great post on “compassion fatigue”) and specifically among vets. Veterinarians are believed to be four times as likely to commit suicide than those in other professions. One recent study found that two-thirds of vets surveyed had suffered from clinical depression; of that group, only a third had sought professional help. (Recently in New York City, this sad trend hit the news when Dr. Shirley Koshi of the Bronx killed herself following a lawsuit surrounding a stray cat she had tried to adopt). Although I am not aware of the statistics regarding animal trainer suicide or depression, I’ve certainly heard anecdotal cases of both. Perhaps, most notably, was the alleged suicide of Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz, who was the dog trainer to the Obama and Kennedy family dogs.
Yesterday I was at my vet and I asked him his thoughts on the matter. He pointed to the long hours, and relatively low pay in a field that many enter with great school debt, all coupled with the fact that there are more veterinarians graduating school than ever before, making job placement and expectations about workplace performance all the more stressful. He stopped his explanation to weigh my sickly cat. Turned out she had gained a pound. “Yay!” he said, all six-and-a-half feet of him nearly jumping up and down. He truly was thrilled, as was I: thrilled to have found a vet who cared so much.
It occurred to me that that genuine feeling — those peaks — so often have equally intense valleys. I thought about the day, perhaps not too far from now, when he will tell me there is no more that can be done for my cat. Will he feel my sadness so intensely? It’s a sadness that I’m sure is only compounded when faced with clients who can’t or don’t want to invest in their pet’s medical care, or people for whom no longer having a pet would just be the more convenient option. These things happen every day at vet offices and shelters around the world. Having to go to work every day never knowing if you may have to end the life of a healthy or treatable animal would take a toll on anyone, particularly someone who cares deeply enough about animals to dedicate their life to working with them.
Daily having to end lives that could be saved would take a toll on anyone.
The analog as a positive reinforcement dog trainer, I think, is seeing all the dogs out there who suffer, many of them in the homes of well-intentioned dog owners who have not been lucky enough to know about the work of people like Dr. Yin. How many dogs in New York City right this moment are getting needless (and often ineffective) yanks, or lashes, or are getting yelled at by humans who have just never learned any other way to change behavior. And then there are the many thousands of dogs behind closed doors, home alone for ten or twelve hours a day, day after day, some of them receiving electric shocks to the neck if they cry out in distress. Dr. Yin worked tirelessly to help change the average pet owner’s view of what dog ownership can and should mean.
I’ve dealt with depression since childhood, which is perhaps a surprise to people who know me superficially; I think I can come off as pretty cheery. When I’m in the depths of a depressive episode, it’s hard to see anything outside of it. The antidote to most of my depression, which usually comes wrapped in crippling regrets about choices I’ve made, is the reminder that if I hadn’t taken every path I chose up until now, I probably wouldn’t have ended up with a job that I love as much as being a dog trainer.
In the wake of this tragedy I am grateful to find myself part of a community that is open to discussing depression, and its many terrible forms. My friend, animal trainer Ilana Bram, put it eloquently in a recent email exchange we had. “We don’t need to hide our struggles. It is normal for people in our field to struggle with bigger questions. We face a lot of pain, and it’s true that life is pain, but there is also beauty and kindness. We have to remember that we can make a change. Today I saw an article about brine shrimp and how they affect the currents of the oceans. Each brine shrimp is insignificant and tiny, but together their movement is so strong it affects the currents. That’s how we can be. Do your part, little shrimp. Keep on. We are changing the tides.”
Goodbye Dr. Yin. Thank you for everything.