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Why Do Dogs Seem to Hate the Postman?

Psychological reasons explain the hostility between dogs and mail carriers.

Licensed from Vital Imagery
Source: Licensed from Vital Imagery

At the end of one of our club's beginner dog obedience classes a large woman with a blonde cocker spaniel on leash beside her came up to me with a concerned look on her face. "We are having a problem with Amber [the dog] since she seems to hate the mailman. She is becoming more and more aggressive toward him. Just a couple of days ago when he came to deliver the mail she rushed at the front door, barking and growling all the way, and then she hit the door so hard that she cracked the glass panel in the middle. My husband is trying to figure out some way to protect the glass so that she doesn't break through it in the future, but he is also worried about what happens if she gets out because she is acting as though she really wants to bite our mail carrier. Do you have any idea why she has developed this antagonism toward him? As far as we can tell he's never done anything to harm or threaten her?"

I looked down at the little floppy-

Licensed from Vital Imagery
Source: Licensed from Vital Imagery

eared dog who was nuzzling me and wagging her little stump tail. It was extremely difficult to picture in my mind that this animal would act aggressively toward anything. Unfortunately I do know the statistics and they show that thousands of postal workers are attacked by dogs every year. So what is going on here?

Well, part of the problem is that dogs seem to be doing one of the jobs for which they were originally domesticated. For wild canines it was seldom the case that someone coming into their territory was there for a friendly social visit. So to protect themselves, or defend their mates, their offspring, or their food supply, these wild canines would confront such intruders with loud barking, growling, and even direct aggression if necessary to drive the interloper out of their territory.

Then early humans appeared on the scene. Humans were good hunters, but were not much into maintaining sanitary conditions. That meant that whatever parts of the animal that they killed which were not needed (bones, entrails, scraps and hides) were tossed into garbage heaps outside of the village or camp. The wild canines (in most cases wolves) saw all of this wasted food which could be obtained by them without the danger of an actual hunt. So they began to hang around the human settlements in order to avail themselves of this free buffet. After a while these wild ancestors of our dogs began to consider the area around the human settlements as part of their own territory and would therefore setup a commotion whenever the village was approached by a stranger or a wild animal. This greatly improved the safety of these early human communities because it served as an early warning for potential trouble.

Somewhere along the line some of these early humans reasoned that if canines can serve as an effective alarm system if something poses a potential danger to the village then having one of them inside of their home could serve as a personal warning system if something threatened their own residence. A sort of biological burglar alarm and bodyguard if the individual approaching had hostile intent or a biological doorbell if the individual was friendly. This was apparently one of the motivations for domesticating dogs in the first place. It was therefore important that even after domestication the dogs should maintain their urge to defend their own territory.

To a dog anybody showing up at your front door is potentially some sort of intruder into their territory, whether it is the postman, a UPS driver, or the guy delivering Chinese food or pizza. It is appropriate that this should trigger their defence mechanism in a dog since that is one of the reasons why we decided to keep them in the first place.

Now here is where some simple psychological mechanisms come into play which can take this instinctive territorial response and turn it into an antagonistic and aggressive response against the person delivering mail to your door. You see, the postman arrives, the dog acts defensively, and the postman leaves. In other words, in the dog's mind, he attempted to defend his territory and it worked. This is an effective reward and since any rewarded behavior tends to become stronger and more likely this means that when the postman or another delivery person arrives it becomes more probable that the dog will respond in this defensive manner. Furthermore any of the cues associated with such "intruders" arriving, such as their uniforms, the fact that they are carrying something in their hands, or even the sight and sound of their vehicles, can come to trigger these defensive behaviors.

But there is a problem. Although in the dog's mind he can feel that he has emerged victorious and has driven away the intruder, vanquished the bad guy, or ended the potential threat, it doesn't end there. You see the trespasser always seems to come back. The intruder is driven away but perhaps the next day he reappears, which, in the dog's mind, means that the level of the aggressive behavior has not been strong enough. Thus the dog feels that the only answer is to escalate its response. The barks become more vigorous and sustained, and soon they are mixed with snarls and growls, and finally with lunges and attempts to actually bite the interloper. The constant reappearance of this intruder is bound to become associated with a conditioned negative set of emotions. Thus the inbred distrust of the stranger eventually becomes an outright antagonism and perhaps hatred of anyone arriving at your door.

Even today, it is useful to have a dog who announces the arrival of someone on your threshold. However having a dog go ballistic and act aggressively is neither a safe nor a pleasant event. To deal with people that are coming to visit me, or people who I may open the door to speak to, I have solved the problem with my dogs quite simply. I keep a short leash near the door along with a plastic container with some treats. When the dog is barking at the door I praise him quietly telling him "Good dog! Good guarding!" I then tell him to sit while I clip on his leash and give him a treat. I then open the door, keeping the dog beside me, and explain to the person who is there that "I am trying to teach my dog to say hello politely." I then give them a treat and tell them to offer the treat to my dog. That is usually enough so that afterwards we can conduct our business while the dog remains quietly under control.

This could work to help ratchet down the level of antagonism between mail carriers and your dog if you were there most days when the mail was delivered. In any event if the dog is safely behind a closed door there is little threat to the postman. If you can put up with the noise and antagonistic display of behaviors, as long as the dog is safely in your house there is no problem. However it still leaves you with the constant worry about what might happen if the dog gets out while the mail carrier is nearby.

It may be interesting to know that several years ago I was consulted by the Canadian Postal Service because mailmen were often attacked or threatened by dogs. Obviously it is not the dogs who were safely behind the door who with the problem, but rather those who were being kept behind gates, perhaps in the front yard where the pathway leading up to the front door and the mail slot was located. In such situations it is possible to use treats and gentle words (especially if supported by the dog's owner) to greatly reduce the level of aggression between postal workers and dogs. I outlined a few ways which might help at that meeting. My suggestions seemed to get a positive response from those in attendance and there was a lively question-and-answer session.

A year or two later I was once again invited to talk to some postal management personnel and some union representatives about a report which had recently come out enumerating the number of dog bites sustained by mail carriers. When I arrived I I was surprised to learn that none of the recommendations from my earlier visit had been implemented. So I asked a management representative if he knew why not, and he replied "Those techniques that you suggested take time and slow down the mail delivery schedule since it requires that each mail carrier must interact with each dog on his or her route. Therefore they are not practical."

I later asked a union representative who had been at my original talk if he had any further information on why my recommendations were not followed and he replied "Your recommendations depended upon the postal delivery workers carrying and dispensing treats. We couldn't work out an arrangement with management as to who would pay for such treats. If they were required for an efficient and safe performance of our duties as mail carriers then there was no justification for foisting off the cost of these treats on the individual postal workers. We felt that the treats should be paid for by the Postal Service. Management disagreed and therefore the union recommended that such treats not be used by those delivering the mail."

And so it goes… And so the antagonism between the postman and our dogs will continue.

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