Case Histories: Dog Gone Postal?
One of the most common problems involving dog bites, is the mailman/UPS man scenario. We all know that all dogs hate these people, right? They can't possibly own any dogs themselves because the dog would attack them, right? I have been asked these ridiculous questions by the unknowing public many times. In this article we will attempt to debunk some of these misconceptions. We will explain why dogs view delivery people in a negative way, and explain methods of reversing their dogs' perception of them. You might call this an extension of Cheryl's Carlson's excellent video "Dog Bite Prevention."
The problem as I see it is twofold. Owners are inadvertently "teaching" their dogs to go after these people. And at the same time, the delivery person is acting like an agitator. Consider the scenario: a stranger pulls up to your house, and starts walking (very quickly) towards your front door. Since they have been bitten or chased by so many dogs, they are very leery. So they look sneaky. Sounds like a good agitator doesn't it? And they're REALLY scared so the reality is there. When they hear a dog bark, or worse see a dog coming out, they throw the package and take off!. So to the dog, the barking/chasing worked. He got the "bad guy" off their property.
Then we have the owner. While the dog is barking or snarling at the poor delivery person, the owner is quite nervous, anticipating the worst. And the entire time they're PETTING THE DOG!!! They're SAYING "its okay, he's your friend", but the dog is HEARING (and I quote Cheryl), "that's right, you can rip his right arm off." So they are inadvertently keying the dog on them.
In the fall of 1997, a woman called me to inquire about a dog problem. She said that Spot, a 8 1/2 year old pit bull-Rhodesian Ridgeback mix, turned into the exorcist anytime the mailman or UPS truck pulled up. She had been bitten several times in her feeble attempts to calm him down. Her main concern seemed to be that her 2 children, ages 6 and 8, might be next. When I had asked her how long he has been acting in this manner, her response was, "about 7 years!!" She seemed a little insulted when I asked the obvious question, "why didn't you call someone a little sooner?" Her response, "my husband said that he will take care of it." He sure did. When showing me some pictures of Spot, I noticed one that looked like something from one of the Alien movies. When I asked her to explain the look on Spots' face in the picture, she said that her husband was "training" the dog to be protective on a word. So every time a car pulled up, or a person walked towards the house, he would try to fire him up. WE AGAIN HAVE THE CLASSIC PROBLEM DOG-PROBLEM OWNER scenario, and the problem is, as a dog trainer, you are supposed to "fix" both. Another problem was that once we began deprogramming Spot, the husband wanted nothing to do with the training. He had the old fix-the-dog attitude. We were doomed to failure. Or so I thought. The funny thing was that Spot loved everybody. Once you were in the house you were fine. Strangers on the street while out walking were fine also. ANYBODY could pet him. So this was a LEARNED behavior. Dogs are not genetically predisposed to hate UPS trucks or mailmen. If he could learn it, could he UN-learn it?
The method I used for Spot was something I had to improvise on. Like my article, The Dog Fighter, I have never read this anywhere, so I must have made it up, right? Along with altering the relationship with the PRIMARY owner, the wife (who was Spots' favorite person in the whole world), he was to be put on a program of what I call forced socialization (learning phase). Of course the coup de gras was saved for last (proofing phase). The owner was instructed to first bring spot out in public, to shopping malls or any crowded areas, and if any aggression was shown (towards people or vehicles) it would be met with a strong correction (by me) with a pinch collar, and a vocal correction (by her). It does no good if Spot acts okay for me. It has to be with his owner. We then went to the POST OFFICE (correction phase), so he could see 50 mail trucks a day and was given treats and praise right at the moment the truck passed us. We also (get this) went to the UPS garage and stood at the entrance and did the same thing!!! After a few hundred trucks he was laying down and smiling to the point he was looking for the trucks so he could get his reward. There were no more corrections needed at this stage. He was now ready for the final test (proofing phase).
I have a friend who works for the local phone company and has a huge white bucket truck. I had him pull up in front of Spots' house, lights blaring, beeping the horn, making the bucket go up and down (to increase animation). This is much more distracting than a mail or UPS truck could ever hope to be. At first Spot was going ballistic, he had the exorcist face on and was bouncing off the bay window. But guess what happened next? You would not believe the look on his face when (on my signal), the passenger side door opened and out stepped his favorite person in the whole world!!! His face actually dropped! We repeated this exercise 5 times. Then I had the owner go back in the house and my friend drove up again. Pulled up, waived to him, yelled his name, threw him his favorite treats and off he went. We repeated this in different vehicles of course. Spot didn't blink. Last time I checked, the most Spot would do is bark a little when a truck pulled up (guess he was waiting for his treat).
So again we have taken a difficult situation and salvaged something from it. I feel it is always possible to solve any behavior problem depending not on the problem itself, but by the training methods employed, and more importantly, by the owner. I'm not alone when I say that I never met a dog I couldn't train, but MANY owners that no one could have trained. Let me close with one of favorite sayings, "I've never had a four legged failure."
"It isn't that they can't see the solution. It is that they can't see the problem." - G. K. Chesterton
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