My dog bit the mailman

It’s so universal that it’s a cliche. Dogs and mail carriers (or other delivery people) are like the Romans and the Carthaginians (gratuitous ancient history reference; fist bump!), engaged in an epic battle across centuries. And yes, it really is true. Dogs typically respond in an extremely heightened way to delivery people.

Owners often attribute this to some quirk either of the delivery person or the dog. In fact, “quirk” seems to be a favorite explanation for all kinds of dog behavior. Dog won’t step on linoleum? Quirk. Dog growls at men in hats? Quirk. It’s like dogs are full of mental gremlins and all we can do is chuckle and talk about how quirky they are.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Dogs have instincts and responses that we sometimes find difficult to understand, but they are as a species EMINENTLY rational and sensible. Dogs do not self-deceive; they don’t hate; they don’t, unless they are mentally ill, act unpredictably. Those are all uniquely human faults.

So now that we know that key fact, now that we know that the dog believes that he is acting in a completely rational way, what on earth is going on? The answer is, I think, in two pieces.

First, the mailman is that worst of all things, a mysterious intruder. But shouldn’t the dog know her? After all, she’s been delivering our mail for three years! A friend put it far better than I ever could:

“No, it is a menacing person who keeps coming day after day, entering the clear boundaries of the territory to do something mysterious, probably threatening in nature. He keeps coming despite the fact that he has been clearly warned hundreds of times. Some days (Sundays and holidays to the people; dogs don’t have calendars) he stays away, so he is learning a little but he clearly needs a firmer lesson.”

I would add the second piece of the puzzle:

Mail carriers are so universally barked at and menaced by dogs precisely because of what they do. They approach the house with intent, the dog goes bananas, the mail carrier leaves again, usually in a hurry. In the dog’s mind, this was an intruder who reacted to a bark the way bad intruders do, by running away, but because he or she is a REALLY bad intruder, he comes back again and again and again.

It’s INCREDIBLY reinforcing for dogs to bark at delivery people, because they think it’s working. And it works every day, often several times a day. It sends dogs (good, stable, sane, obedient dogs) into a frenzy.

I’ve got dogs to walk and kids to get to bed, but tomorrow I will try to talk about what I think the implications of the behavior can become.

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