Why do Dogs Hate the Mailman?
It’s a common cliché: the mailman arrives every morning and Rover starts viciously barking, snarling and lunging at the gate. The cliché is so common that mail men have started attending seminars on how to deal with the issue and carrying products to keep dogs away. The use of these products though seem to exacerbate the aggression. But what triggers this reaction in dogs and why do so many dogs (even the seemingly friendly breeds) seem to hate the mail man?
The anger is often not strictly reserved to the mail man, the Fedex and UPS guys are affected as well and so are plumbers, gardeners, pizza delivery guys and many other employees who routinely visit your home. What do all these people have in common? And most of all, what can be done to reduce this behavior? Let’s start by taking a look at why dogs don’t like these people to start with.
Five Reasons Why Dogs Hate the Mailman
Insider story: We live in an era where dogs can be a big liability and a dog bite can easily cost your home, the life of your dog and your reputation. My two big Rottweilers weighing over 90 pounds are very fond of our mailman and have even licked and greeted my landlord who one day just popped into our property out of nowhere, climbed over the fence and started painting our home! Things could have gone really, really bad if I didn't train my dogs to accept the mailman and visitors coming to my home. But shhhh.. Don’t tell anyone! While my dogs are two big love babies, their size and black and tan suit is the only a deterrent; we have ADT to take care of the rest!
Issue 1: Trespassing Territory
For starters, from a dog’s perspective, mail men, pizza guys and plumbers are all people trespassing property. Many dogs, especially certain breeds have a predisposition for passively alert barking or engaging in more actively protecting territory. While the dog may appear for the most part angry, there may definitively be a base of fear. This tendency possibly dates back to a dog’s past in the wild when canines formed packs and perceived any invaders as a threat to their resources. They had to protect the pack’s resources such as food, sexual mates and newborn pups from invading animals. Urine marking was one way to delimitate the area as an olfactory “do not trespass sign”. Trespassers who ignored the scent markings, were alerted to back off through barks and then if still this did not work, a more active form of aggression took place, leading to a full ballistic attack.
When dogs were domesticated, the dog’s protective nature was further appreciated. These dogs alerted people in villages about dangers such as predator animals or enemies. Nowadays, many dogs are still appreciated for their alarm barks. Yet, a more active role is often frowned upon due to its potential for liability.
Note: Never try to train a dog to become a guardian dog on your own; the issue may backfire the day you are hurt in your home and EMS cannot access your home without facing Cujo. Rather, accept a few alert barks, thank your dog and then take over. Let your dog know that it’s not his responsibility to decide who enters or exits your property, the decision is yours.
Issue 2: Mailmen Keep Coming Back!
The whole barking behavior is highly reinforcing for the dog. If every time Rover barks, the mail man leaves (most do sooner or later) he gets relief. Put yourself in Rover’s shoes: let’s say you don’t like cats around your property, so every time you see one coming, you make this hissing sound. Most likely, since the cat leaves, you’ll feel compelled to repeating the hissing sound. But what happens that day you deal with a bolder cat that cares less about your hissing sound? Most likely, you’ll try something else, you’ll hiss and stomp your feet loudly as you move in the cat’s direction. Tada! So, now, you’ll hiss and stomp next time.
So don’t expect the initial barking to just stop there! Since the mail man keeps coming back day after day, don’t feel surprised if Rover starts thinking: what part of my barking you don’t understand? I’m telling you to go away. Ok, let me start showing my teeth too and see if it works!
Issue 3: Release of Addicting Chemicals
You may not be aware of this, but fear or anger in your dog causes the release of several chemicals in the dog’s brain. The whole experience can be highly reinforcing and even physiologically addictive. Fear is known for producing adrenalin, whereas, anger causes the secretion of adrenalin and another hormone known as noradrenalin, explains James O Heare in his book “The Canine Aggression Workbook”. This chemical bath can be quite addicting, which is also a contributing factor to why you see aggressive behaviors repeat over and over.
Issue 4: The Behavior becomes Habitual
What happens when the dogs get to rehearse this behavior over and over? It’s become a habit. Dogs are habitual creatures over all and they engage in behaviors that work. If you combine the three issues mentioned above together, you’ll understand why the behavior of barking at the mail man becomes almost reflexive. Your dog doesn't seem to think twice about it; just the sight or the voice of the mail man is enough to send him in over drive.
Issue 5: The Behavior Generalizes
Dogs can generalize fear and aggression quite easily. Your dog starts barking at the mail man, then as days go by, your dog starts barking at the sound of the truck honking, and then he’ll bark at the mere sound of his truck approaching your property. Soon you’ll have a dog that not only barks at the mail man but barks also to all the cues suggesting his arrival. Not only, as we discussed before, he may also decide one day to generalize further and bark even at the plumber, the gardener and the firefighters coming to save your cat from the tree. Just as a tiny spark can create a big fire, your dog’s behavior can really get out of hand. So let’s take a look at how to tackle this issue.
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How to Train Your Dog to Accept the Mailman
So, as you can see, postal workers have their own very good reasons for being concerned when they come by your house. If Rover turns into Cujo the moment you’ve got mail, these tips may be quite helpful.
- Start Early
You can’t start early enough for this type of training. Place a nice cookie into your mail box and tell your mail man to deliver it to your dog every morning. This will create positive associations towards the mail man. This way, your pup will grow to love him and will be eager to see him each day!
- Prevent Rehearsal of Behavior
If you missed the boat, and failed to make your mailman the perfect representation of a friendly man, then you have some big homework to do. The first step is to prevent rehearsal of behavior. As mentioned, aggressive behavior is reinforcing and on top of that addicting and habitual. The more your dog rehearses the behavior, the more it will put roots. Stop letting your dog out to send the mailman away. Start keeping him in your home in the farthest room possible when you know it’s time for mail delivery.
- Go gradual and Create Positive Associations
Of course, secluding him in a room while the mail man arrives does nothing to fix the behavior but at least it prevents your dog from rehearsing it. This is a big start. Your next step is to then classically counter-condition him to associate anything about mail men with good things. To accomplish this you will need to read these 5 hubs:
- 1) Dog threshold levels
- 2) Dog desensitization
- 3) Dog counter-conditioning
- 4) My COR (conditioned oriented response) training program
- 5) Dog differential reinforcement of alternate, incompatible behaviors
In short, you’ll first have to first find a distance where your dog doesn't react to the mailman’s truck noises (under threshold), secondly, you’ll start by gradually and systematically working on the issue through exposure (desensitization) and third you’ll have to change your dog’s emotions about the mailman through classical counter-conditioning through a program such as COR or open bar/closed bar. Then once those positive associations are made, you can shift into operant counter-conditioning by training your dog an alternate, default behavior (differential reinforcement of alternate behaviors) A sit or automatic watch works fine in this scenario. Basically, with time, your dog may learn to sit or watch you (as in COR) instead of barking and aggressing.
This system works because from being a foe, the mailman, gardener or pizza guy becomes your dog’s best friend. Patricia McConnell in her book "The Cautious Canine" suggests having the pizza delivery guy come to your home and deliver a slice of pizza just for your dog. As your dog’s emotions change internally, you’ll also see the outward manifestations gradually vanish. This means with time, your dog will no longer feel the need to bark/growl/lunge. While in the wild dogs acted territorial to protect resources such as food, now your mailman has actual become an actual source for resources! However, make safety your top priority, don't let your dog free to potentially hurt your mail man. If you have given your dog treats every time your dog sees the mail man and you want to progress and have your mail man try to give them, it's better to have your mail man toss them safely through the fence than risk being bit from direct exposure.
*Note: some dogs that appear to act out of territoriality are actually frustrated greeters. These are dogs who lack self-control and will bark because they are frustrated by the fence. If there was no fence, these dogs would run straight towards the mail man and just greet him as a long lost friend. If your dog is a frustrated greeter, work on establishing self-control through the Premack principle. In other words, ask your dog to sit or another command before he goes towards the mail man and once he sits, the mail man can toss a stuffed Kong or a bone you have left in the mail box for the mail man to deliver.
Disclaimer: please make safety your top priority. Behavior modification comes with some risks. This article is not to be used as a substitute for professional behavioral advice. If your dog is aggressive in any way, please consult with a veterinary behaviorist, a certified applied animal behaviorist or a force-free trainer well-versed in dog behavior modification. By reading this article you accept this disclaimer and agree not to hold the author of this article liable for any accidents or wrongdoing.
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