Aside from stating the obvious—that punitive training methods can cause physical harm to dogs—let's look at some of the ways that positive reinforcement actually helps a dog's health.
As we often read about in health magazines or hear about in popular television shows on health, stress causes a plethora of health issues. These issues range from a compromised immune system, to joint stiffness and pain, to obesity and digestive problems, even to heart disease. This fact doesn't just apply to humans, but it applies to dogs as well. Stress doesn't just cause physiological problems, however, it also causes unpleasant psychological issues such as anxiety and depression as well—both of which further exasperate the above mentioned physiological effects.
When an animal has the ability to make choices, their stress levels are drastically reduced. Positive reinforcement/ force free training offers animals the ability to participate in the training. They choose to offer behaviors and don't feel the stress or fear of punishment of "getting it wrong." We simply reward the behaviors we like and ignore the ones we don't. Using this approach, we have science on our side. Since animals engage in behaviors that are of value to them, we make the behaviors that we want to see repeated valuable. We set the environment up for the dog to succeed and the dog chooses to participate in the "game" of offering behaviors and receiving rewards. In the process, the dog learns the behaviors we want him to repeat on cue and has fun in the process. This is a win-win situation for dog and handler. Through the positive reinforcement method, the dog begins to see the world very differently. Right choices are rewarded, scary things are introduced slowly at the dog's comfort level and are accompanied by wonderful things. Fearful dogs become more confident, reactive dogs become calmer, and unruly dogs become well-mannered members of the family. This transformation doesn't occur over night, but the effects are long lasting and the benefits are huge—you gain a confident, trusting dog that is healthier because he doesn't have to live in a constant state of stress.
Keen Awareness to Your Dog
Positive reinforcement/force free trainers analyze each behavior problem in order to treat it effectively. There's no "one size fits all" recipe to any behavior challenge. We recognize that each dog is different, thus what is driving the behavior is different from dog to dog. For example, Fido might pull on the leash because he has pent up energy wanting to run and you simply walk too slow. Fluffy, on the other hand, might not have much energy at all but pulls on the leash because she wants to sniff the next tree. Each of these dogs present the same problem, but their needs would be addressed differently. This creates keen observers. The handler must look carefully at the problem at hand in order to understand how to best treat it. Everything isn't dismissed as a "fight for dominance," rather, everything about the dog and the environment is considered.
If a new behavior challenge presents itself suddenly, dog handlers are encouraged to take a trip to the vet first to make sure a health issue isn't causing the new behavior. It's often surprising how a small or common health issue can cause a variety of behavioral symptoms. For example, my oldest dog, Lily, loves food. A recent health issue which causes her blood sugar to drop meant that we need to feed her smaller meals four times a day. You'll hear no argument from her on that! She was fine for about a year, then suddenly Lily started becoming anxious about food. She would attempt to knock over trash cans, jump on tables, whine in the early hours of the morning for someone to get up and feed her. She’d whine on her mat while we ate our dinner despite solidly knowing a "relax on mat while we eat" behavior. Lily is 12 years old and never in her life displayed these behaviors. A quick trip to the vet with a blood test and urine analysis produced surprising results. Her blood sugar levels were perfectly fine. The problem? She had a bladder infection. A simple course of antibiotics fixed all her behavior problems (except trying to get into the trash as that became a self-rewarding and learned behavior). Her body felt discomfort which must have caused her anxiety. Since food is comforting and likely removed the discomfort of decreasing blood sugar levels in the past, she desperately attempted to get more food to satisfy this current discomfort. Her veterinarian found her case very interesting and questioned if maybe thirst was being mistaken for hunger. If her body needed her to intake more water in an attempt to flush out the infection, she could have mistaken the need for water as a need for food (as people often do). Regardless, the round of antibiotics alone cured all but one of those behavior issues.
Positive reinforcement/ force free training encourages us to consider the whole dog, because there is always something driving the behavior—whether it be physiological or psychological. Even something as simple as a dog not wanting to engage in a training session or offer a specific behavior, like a rear leg lift, an agility jump, or a roll over can signal pain or injury and should not be ignored. When a dog acts differently or is unwilling to comply with a behavior we are asking, we can't dismiss it as simply a "struggle for dominance" or as their being "stubborn", but rather an indicator of a larger problem. Positive methods help us come out of that shallow view, analyze the dog and environment that s/he is in, and do what is best for the physiological and psychological well-being of our dogs.
I am a passionate animal lover, rescuer and trainer. Kindness is my goal. I never want an animal to feel intimidated or threatened. Training should be fun for both the dog and human, so the training methods I use reflect my goal of helping the animal to feel safe so they can learn and have fun. I desire the same for the human client as well. Life is too short to spend time training an animal in a fashion that is anything less than fun!