Dear Bark: My dog Kiwi has a personal vendetta against our mail carrier, which has spread to include all mail carriers. She barks and charges every time she sees one, even if he’s not in his truck. In a crowded room, she’ll spot a mail carrier, try to head his way and bark like a lunatic. She does not have issue with any other men, people in uniforms or hats! She reacts to the truck, too, but not to the FedEx or UPS truck. What’s her problem, and how do we stop the madness?
If it’s any consolation, your dog is in good company with this reaction. It’s so common that the image of a dog barking and charging a mail carrier (who’s very worried about protecting the seat of his pants) is a comic trope. But there’s nothing funny about it if it’s your dog—or if you’re the mail carrier!
For some dogs, the original barking is motivated by fear, while for others, it’s a territorial response. Still other dogs lose control because the mail carrier’s repeated appearances bring on a state of high arousal. The crazed behavior can even be the result of frustration; some social dogs want nothing more than to make a new buddy, but are continually thwarted by doors or gates or other barriers to contact.
It’s normal for a dog to bark to alert her social group to anyone approaching the house. What makes it tricky is that from a dog’s point of view, the mail carrier is a repeat offender who keeps coming onto her turf. Dogs rarely meet and get to know this individual, yet he comes onto the property over and over again. What begins as an alerting behavior can morph into wanting-to-eat-the-mail-carrier displays as the dog learns that she barks and he goes away. To us, that looks like two separate things, but to dogs, it looks like success: I bark, he leaves. Dogs learn very quickly that barking will make the intruder go away.
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The situation can become more serious when the dog generalizes to act this way around mail carriers in other contexts. Some dogs learn to associate specific traits with negative feelings about the individual, and react whenever those triggers are present. Then you’ve got a dog who goes nuts around anyone who looks like the mail carrier, or who’s dressed in a similar way. Some dogs generalize to people who smell the same, perhaps from scents inside the truck, a type of shampoo or deodorant, or a cologne. For other dogs, any person carrying parcels and papers is treated like a mail carrier.
Generalizing happens with the truck, too. While some dogs distinguish between the mail truck and any other truck, others begin to bark at all trucks. Lots of dogs learn that the mail truck always stops at their house, but the UPS and the FedEx trucks usually drive by.
No matter why your dog is acting in this manner, there are things you can do to improve the situation and help your dog (and the mail carrier) have better experiences when around each other.
Prevent your dog from engaging in the problematic behavior. If it has become a habit, you need to break the habit, and that means avoid the problem so your dog doesn’t have yet another experience in which she successfully barks the mail carrier on his way. Each time she’s able to do that, she’s like an addict who’s taken another hit.
Whether you keep your dog in a part of the house where she can’t see the mail being delivered, or cover your windows with poster board to block her view, simple preventive actions will go a long way toward helping her overcome this.
Teach your dog a new response based on a new emotional reaction. If your dog is upset—fearful or irritated by the sight of the postal worker—she will continue to react by barking and growling. So, it’s critical to help your dog change the way she feels about the situation. That can be done by teaching your dog that every time a mail carrier or a mail truck shows up, they get their favorite thing. For most dogs, that favorite item is either treats (perhaps stuffed in a Kong for longer-lasting enjoyment) or a toy such as a tennis ball, squeaky fleece animal or a rope toy.
If the mail carrier is willing, ask him to toss her the treats or a toy, since that’s the best way for her to learn to associate him with good things. Just be aware that while some mail carriers are willing to be involved in this process, others would rather face snow and rain and heat and the gloom of night!