Around the same time every day, many dog owners dread the moment the mailman comes for his daily visit. With the sound of a gate latch, many dogs fly into a manic rage and go tearing through the house to fling their bodies at the front door and bark as though there's a monster in their front yard. Babies start crying, the neighbors grit their teeth and write another complaint letter, and the poor mailman breathes a sigh of relief that the dog is behind a solid door. If this sounds like your dog's daily routine (minus Sundays of course), then keep reading to find out how to stop your dog from terrifying the mailman.
Dogs don't have the best, most sharpest vision. If you hold up a piece of plastic cling wrap, smear it with oil and try to look through it, you'll get an idea of how your dog sees the world. Dogs don't have as many rods in their eyes like we do that allow us to see sharpness and details, which means dogs mostly see the outline of a person. That's why a lot of dogs are often spooked by people carrying large boxes, wearing a big hat, or carrying a big bag. Sound familiar? Most often mailmen are carrying all of these things. Your dog sees a funny shaped human approaching his home carrying a lot of foreign things. So instead of relying on vision, your dog "smells" the world and can smell millions of times better than we can. Which means that your dog can smell the mailman coming from far away. He's also alerted by other neighborhood dogs with his acute sense of hearing.
So why does your dog go bananas when the mailman comes? Dogs bark because they are alerting us to something that they are wary of. Chances are, one of the first times that your dog experienced the mailman coming to your home, he was spooked by the random person carrying large objects and then he barked at him to alert you and to try to get him to go away. Then the mailman turned and left. The next day the same things happened and Bruno got his way again. He has learned through operant conditioning that he can bark and the mailman leaves, which means that his behavior is only going to increase because he gets what he wants- the stranger to leave his property. Chances are Bruno has decided that it's his duty to do this everyday and that the rush of exciting endorphins and chemicals really gets him going. He's probably also pretty frustrated to be behind a barrier, which only increases his aggression at the mailman. He'll just keep barking more and more and may start charging at the door to create even more of an impact to get the mailman to leave. He also probably gets yelled at by his owner, meaning that the mailman makes his owner angry too. This situation happens everyday consistently, conditioning the dog to go bonkers at any signal or cue that the mailman is approaching. Your dog has been trained to bark at the mailman.
How do you stop your dog from barking at the mailman? First off, it's very important for all puppies and any dogs that are new to a home to be properly introduced to the mailman. Proper socialization to the mailman and all other visitors to your home is key to creating a calm dog who is confident and happy around strangers. To do this, make sure you are home the first few times that the mailman or anyone else comes to the house. With your puppy or dog on a loose leash, ask your puppy to sit for the mailman and ask if he would like to give your pup a treat. You can also use your puppy's favorite toy or ball and initiate training playtime every time the mailman comes. Attach good, pleasant experiences to the mailman coming for a visit and condition your puppy to love the neighborhood mailman. You should also socialize your puppy to people who are carrying big boxes, wearing large hats, walking with a cart with a wheels, etc, Taking the time to socialize your puppy will prevent so many "behavioral problems" because you will be building up your puppy's confidence and "showing" him how you want him to behave in all different types of situations. If you let your puppy decide how he naturally wants to act, you may end up with a barking mailman terrorizer.
What do you do if your dog has a full blown pattern and history of barking at the mailman? It's very important that your dog is safely secured and managed. Keeping everyone safe is critical because your dog can be taken away if anything horrible should happen. The first step to counter conditioning your dog is to make sure he is properly managed before training even takes place. Manage your dog by making sure that he does not have access to the place that he would normally run to and fly into a rage. This may be the front door, a window or a couch where he can perch on and bark. It's important that he can not see the mail carrier coming and going. Also, to start breaking the pattern and habits, you have to restrict access from the place where he would normally go crazy. This is especially important if you are not home when the mailman typically comes. Chances are your dog also goes crazy when anyone comes to the front door, including yourself and other guests. So it's very important that you start with staying very calm when coming and going from your home. Do not give your dog any attention at all, until he goes and lays down calmly. Then call him over to you and ask him to sit for pets. Same things goes for guests, they must completely ignore him until he is calm and then they can ask him to sit and give him treats. You may also have to put your dog on leash so that you can manage him safely if he jumps on guests or reacts to them aggressively. Positively reinforce your dog for acting calm and quiet with guests, in order to calm him down around anyone that may be coming to your home.
The second part to counter conditioning is to desensitize your dog to any noises that signal that someone is approaching your home. The mailman may have to open a gate latch, open the mailbox, or put mail through a door slot. Using a clicker, set up the scenario with a friend and counter condition your dog to the stimulus. To do this, for the first ten times, click the moment that you hear the stimulus, before your dog begins to get excited. Then once your dog starts to hear the noise and look at you, attach the cue, "quiet" and then click when your dog quietly looks at you. You will know that your dog is getting it when he hears the stimulus and automatically looks to you instead. If there are multiple things that the mailman does that sets your dog off, isolate each one separately. Try to think of how your dog is experiencing the situation to figure out what gets him to react and desensitize him to all of the noises and situations that occur when the mailman comes.
With your dog safely on leash (and maybe even muzzled depending on the severity of your dogs reaction to the mailman), introduce your dog to him or her and ask if they wouldn't mind treating your dog several times. If your dog refuses to even come close to the mailman start off just by clicking and treating every time your dog looks at him or her without barking. If your mail carrier is not available to help out, you can also teach your dog that the presence of the mailman coming means party time. Try to catch your dog right before he starts to bark and then toss a handful of smelly yummy snacks all over the floor away from the door. Or you can whip out a bully stick and ask your dog to sit for it, and then give it to him so that he can happily channel his energy into chewing on it. If your dog is really ball or tug toy motivated, keep play time for when the mailman comes. It's important to try to catch your dog before he starts barking in order to change his emotional response.
If your dog does go completely ballistic, keep a drag line on your dog while you're at home with him (never leave a drag line on your dog when you're not home and never put a drag line on a choke chain), so that you can calmly pick it up and lead your dog away from the door into another room. Once he's stopped barking ask him to sit and make sure that your dog is calm before you open the door and let him leave the room. If you let him out and he rushes back to the door barking, pick up the drag line again and put him in the room. Taking your dog away from the space where he becomes unglued, will help change his emotional response and allow your dog to focus on you so that you engage him in a positive, fun training game. Remember to keep yourself unemotional and calm as well. If you are frustrated and upset with your dog for acting this way, you'll only fuel the flames with your intense energy. Be calm and quiet so that your dog can sense your positive, unaffected response to the mailman. Remember that counter conditioning your dog's response to the mailman will take time and will not happen over night, but with consistency, patience and some fun, your dog will learn to love the mailman. Your mailman, your neighbors and your dog will love you for it!