Canine Behavior/Sister's puppy not wanting to ride in cars
My sister recently got a puppy for her son. Her boyfriend is jealous of the puppy and has been hitting and beating her when she is at his house. Since then she has refused to enter any vehicle, probably because that is how they got to his house. How can she break her of this habit without further beatings?
The puppy is 1 or 2 years old, possibly black lab mix, partially house-trained. The puppy is quite hyperactive and has to be kept in a cage in the house. She is let out to do her business every so often.
The boyfriend is rather nasty and a constant presence in their house. He is on his best behavior in company but is nasty alone. Please don't suggest that she leave him, as she can't (she's tried). He is on good terms with the local police and is generally immune to the consequences of his bad behavior. I suspect he is also abusing her son (5), as he is similarly hyperactive after spending time alone with him, but that's a question for another expert.
Sorry for possible TMI, but I want to give as much information as possible.
I understand that relationship dynamics here are difficult. I feel your stress and concern for your sister's safety and that of her son. I'm so sorry that there is nothing direct that can be done on that front -though an anonymous call to child services could at least get this house (the boyfriend) on their radar and a case file started. If the boy is in daycare or school or goes to camp, such a call can be made while one of those are in session as this way it cannot be laid at your feet. Getting child services involved will circumvent the local police and may carry more weight. I say all of this as a concerned citizen - I'm not a trained social worker and have never had to go through this process myself. I'm just brainstorming an option that might help your sister and nephew find safety and security.
RE the dog:
My best advice to you is for them to rehome this dog. I'm sorry to be so blunt, but if there is abuse in that house - directed only at the dog or directed at others - the dog's behavior will decline and you will end up with a dog who is either completely shut down and too terrified to do anything, or who will eventually fight back - which means a bite. And with the boyfriend's behavior already, you can be sure that won't end well for the dog or your sister for having brought the dog into the house.
Can the dog live with you and let your nephew visit often?
This dog needs to be in an environment where she can recover from the constant stress, where she can feel safe, where she can be trained using force free and fear free methods to help her build her confidence, and where she can be given sufficient and appropriate exercise so she can then practice being calm and relaxed inside. The dog is currently hyper active in the house almost certainly out of lack of practice at how to behave in that environment as well as tremendous pent up energy at being in a crate for so much of the time. Animal welfare regulations recommend not more than 4 hours in a crate at a time, followed by at least as much time out of the crate. Longer/more than that is considered inhumane and abusive (overnight sleeping time excluded as most dogs will comfortably sleep for 6-8 hours).
Then you will likely see a change in car ride behavior. But, honestly, based on your question, the dog's fear of getting into the car is of the lowest priority right now. Right now, the dog's physical and mental safety must come first (as does your sister's and nephew's). I understand the desire by Mom was to get a friend and security for her son, who likely needs that very much. But it will be more damaging to her son if he must watch the boyfriend abuse the dog than if there is no dog available for the boyfriend to abuse.
Working on getting into the car is actually pretty simple in an of itself. You would play games with her such that she approaches the car to get treats that have been laid in a trail leading to the car, and then she moves away. Back and forth, back and forth. Then with the car door open and play so that she approaches the car for medium value treats (e.g. soft dog treats that she likes quite well), and then she has to stick her nose just into the car to retrieve bits of meat or cheese or whatever her favorite (not-dog-toxic) human food is, from the door jam and then the floor and then further into the car, then up on the seat, etc.
Sometimes you have to open both back doors and play the game right through so that she approaches the car snuffling up the trail or medium value treats, and goes through the car finding the high value treats, then out the other side to get more medium value treats.
Then, once she's willingly jumping into the car, you practice closing the door and giving her some treats, then opening the door to let her out. Then build up to closing the door and starting the engine - TREATS - turn off engine and get out. Building on that, as you see she's comfortable and not panicking at each stage before adding another layer to the exercise. The steps would be:
Engine on, back down drive, return, engine off.
Engine on, back down drive, drive two houses down, back up and return to house, engine off.
Engine on, back down drive, to end of street and back....
Engine on, drive around the block and return.
Engine on and drive twice around the block and return.
Engine on, drive a three block radius,
and so on until you can do a 30-minute drive with her and she's not panicked.
At each stage, there is someone providing treats to her every few seconds the first couple times at that stage, and then reducing it to every 30 seconds, then every 60 seconds, every 2 minutes, etc. And initially, it may require someone sitting in the back of the car with her to comfort her and give her the treats at a high frequency to help her make the association that the car is not only not scary, but is the place where awesome happens.
Or, if she enjoys a bully stick of a food-stuffed Kong that's not too tightly packed, you can see if she'll engage with those while in the car.
This process is referred to as Classical Counter Conditioning and is literally the pairing of something scary with something great so that the something scary comes to reliably predict the something great. This then helps make the scary less scary, and sometimes even becomes awesome. And the more that the car rides lead to good things like walks in a park or hikes in the woods or a run at the beach, etc. the more the car ride will come to predict great things.
But, as I said, while this will certainly help the car ride issue, there is a much bigger crisis here and that's the physical and mental safety of the dog. I cannot in good conscience encourage just working on the car issue. I strongly encourage that this dog live away from the man who is abusing her. For her sake and for the sake of the other humans in that house. There is no good outcome there unless the man is willing to get help, and from your initial question, it does not sound like he's in a place yet where he is ready to receive help.
I wish you and your sister/nephew and this dog the very best of luck. Please feel free to followup if I can be of any further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Worcester, MA Behavior Specialist
Masters Candidate - Animals and Public Policy (Animal Behavior)
Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicin