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How to Make Friends with the Postman

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Perhaps one of the most common canine stereotypes is a dog that barks at or chases the mailman. And this is no fitful image. It really does happen. US Postal Service employees carry an ultrasound or mace spray to ward off attacks and there is talk by some uniformed officers of resorting to stun guns. Why the fascination with mail deliverers and other uniformed visitors? You might well ask. Believe it or not, there is an answer to the question that makes perfect sense ... if you're a dog of a certain disposition.

The Nature of the Beast

In fairness, there are two types of dogs that bark when people come near the house – the dominant ones, who engages in alarm barking, and the more fearful ones who bark, lunge, even bite, for fear of their lives. If you are the mailman, it is difficult to tell these two types of dogs apart.

Unbeknownst to you, the former alarm barker is a confident dog signaling to his "pack" that someone is approaching. A sort of "Halt, who goes there," message. If cleared by the owners (the true leaders), such a dog may even be pleased to see visitors, uniformed or otherwise. Fearful dogs, however, are insecure and are sending a much more ominous message, "I don't want you here. Go away or I'll bite you." When the latter dogs are young, they show their true colors show. A person approaches and they back away, barking, and sometimes run for cover. As they grow older, though, there comes a point at which they realize theirs powers of intimidation. Some person, usually one who is not that comfortable around dogs, sees the fearful dog's reaction to them and gives just the subtlest hint of their uncertainty. The dog, always an expert at reading body language, senses the hesitation and grows bolder. It's as if the dog is thinking, "Whatever I am doing seems to be working. I'll try it more often – and more energetically." From these small seeds of victory, monsters can be born.

Why Delivery People?

Now here comes the interesting part. We all know that mail deliverers and UPS men attract the most ferocious warnings, and are attacked more frequently than all other categories of people. Is it the uniform? To a degree, the answer to this question is yes, though it is not the uniform alone that is the problem but what it signifies. What the uniform signals is that the person wearing it comes, does something (like delivering mail), and then leaves. The dog barks, growls, or lunges and the person always disappears. It works every time! The dog builds confidence from these inevitable victories and gains confidence for future occasions. If dogs wore suits, they would have their thumbs hooked under their lapels after such erstwhile victories. Oh, Magoo, they would say to themselves, you've done it again. Of course, the lack of a cause-effect relationship is lost to them and like the cock that takes credit for the sunrise, they are blissful in their ignorance.

What To Do

  • Start off on the right foot. When your pup is still young, preferably starting at the age of six weeks or so, make sure that all visitors, including the uniformed variety, are associated with pleasurable experiences. Invite the mailman in for a few moments and allow him to pet the youngster. Hand the visitor food treats to give to the pup. This way the pup will grow up to have a benevolent perception of visitors.

  • Never sympathize with your pup if he reacts adversely to a stranger. Expressions like "its all right," "okay, boy," and so on, accompanied by petting and praise will reward the dog for its misbehavior, indicating to the pup that its behavior is acceptable to you. It is best to take charge of the situation and direct the pup to perform an alternative acceptable behavior. Take his leash, so that you have control, and give a command such as "stop it!" or "leave it." Then direct the dog to sit or lie down at you feet or on a dog bed or blanket and secure it safely. If possible, have the stranger sit down (a less threatening posture) and stay a while. When the moment has passed, have the stranger (or mailman) toss treats toward the pup during their stay.

  • Be serious. Never allow people to joke about a pup's territorial display of barking. Men, in particular, often seem to find it amusing to say things like "see him off," not realizing that the dog will learn from such encouragement and, in time, will grow larger and more harder to handle.

  • Counterconditoning. Have all strangers, especially mailmen and uniformed visitors, arrive bearing gifts (in the form of treats) for the dog. Pavlov's dog learned that a bell meant food, so they began to salivate at the sound of the bell alone. Your dog can learn that the mailman means food treats and, thus, assume an "appetitive" mode on his approach - a mode incompatible with aggression. Keep food treats in jars inside and outside the door and dispense them generously when mail deliverers and other strangers are around.

  • Make sure that all visitors are non-threatening and that the dog has a clear view of them. People entering the home should not look at, talk to, or interact with the pup (or adult dog) in any way until after they are seated. After that, they can start to shell out food treats for a food-oriented dog or tennis balls for one with a penchant for retrieving. It helps if the dog can clearly see the person who is approaching rather than sense shadows moving around from behind a frosted glass door. Some dogs of this persuasion will even bark or growl at their owner approaching on a poorly lit night until they get a clear view of who is approaching.

  • Advise the mail carrier and UPS man to ignore the pup and avoid walking directly toward it. A circuitous path is much less threatening to a dog. Tossing down a piece of food will not alarm the dog and the donor will be remembered by the dog for this pleasant contribution - even after the fact.

  • Control. If a dog has grown up learning all the wrong lessons, he will have to be restrained during strangers' approaches and be shown how to behave. Head halters are ideal tools to expedite such training as they send the correct biological signals of leadership. Once acclimated to a head halter, the territorial dog can be made to sit when guests or mailmen arrive at the door. Subsequently, people are only greeted and mail is only delivered with the dog fully under control and doing what is asked of it. The first priority is controlling the dog. It helps to start training with people who have been informed of this plan during set-up exercises.

  • Medical treatment with anti-anxiety medication may be helpful but is not needed in all cases.

  • Avoidance. If all else fails, owners may wish to set up some remote drop off for the mailman, or collect their mail at the post office for a while, at least. This may seem like the coward's way out but avoidance is often a good strategy in behavior program management. If a particular response can be avoided for some time (6 months to 1 year), some dogs will be less inclined to react adversely if inadvertently exposed to their former nemesis. Most behaviors are constantly reinforced by learning and will fade in time if reinforcement opportunities are denied.

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