The news hit on my birthday, earlier this week. Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian and animal behaviorist I admire deeply, passed away unexpectedly. A day or two later, we learned that she had taken her own life. The news of her death at 48 years old devastated many of us inspired by her life’s work. The news that she had taken her own life deepened the pain.
Dr. Yin was a veterinarian who also developed a love of the science and art of animal behavior. Like many, she was taught that force was the best training strategy for dogs. Like many others, she discovered that positive training methods work better. Positive reinforcement maintains the strong bond between person and dog, and helps a dog do what is asked of her willingly and happily, not because she is terrified that she will be hurt or punished. I first encountered her work with a book called Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification for Dogs and Cats. A mouthful of a title, and a book packed with amazing techniques, full-color photos of the methods, and even a DVD demonstrating them. Though the book is meant for vets and vet techs, I found it enormously helpful when trying to medicate animals, clip their nails, give sub-Q fluids, and a variety of other things pet sitters do all the time. The book has been my bible in this area since it was published.
One of the saddest details I’ve learned, in reading multiple tributes to Dr. Yin, is that veterinarians have the highest suicide rate of all those in the medical profession. I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me, but it certainly saddens me. Vets, vet techs, and yes, I will even include pet sitters in this category, see so much that is difficult. We deal with the death of pets constantly, and sit with clients whose hearts are broken at their loss. We deal with clients who give the animals in their guardianship far less care than most of us would like to see, sometimes rising even to the level of reportable abuse. If we are not careful, we are all overwhelmed by the demands of clients at all hours of the day and night – legitimate concerns most of the time – but we all struggle with the boundaries between having a life and caring for those in our charge, a challenge made all the more difficult with cell phones, texts, and social media reaching into our lives at all hours.
I will continue to be sad about the loss of Dr. Yin for a bit longer. And grateful for the huge body of work she left behind. Check out her website for more info if you’re interested. But I am also going to let her death remind me that compassion is good, yet it also has a cost, and I need to remember to maintain a balance throughout. I really don’t need to answer the office phone at 9 pm when I’ve been working since 6:30 am. I can’t, and shouldn’t, do everything myself…there are others who can help too. I grieve deeply for the death of Dr. Yin, and though I am nowhere near the amazing presence she was in the world of animal care, still, any of us who care deeply and work hard to improve the life of these creatures who share the earth with us could find ourselves in the same dark place that Dr. Yin clearly did. Rest in peace with all the animals you loved in this life, Dr. Yin. We will miss you.