Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Dogs & postmen: your questions answers!

Please join us for the LIVE follow-up discussion TODAY, 16th July from 2:00 - 4:00pm on Facebook.

As we're sure you're aware, dogs and postmen can sometimes clash. A dog can be frightened and that fear can manifest itself as aggression. Though many dog owners have not experienced this rivalry, for some it’s a daily concern.

Do you worry about how your dog reacts when the postman comes around? Would you benefit from behavioural advice around this topic?

We have enlisted our Head of Canine Behaviour and Training, Lynn Barber, to help answer some of your questions on this subject.

Last week, we asked our supporters on Facebook and Twitter to send us their questions. 
Below Lynn has answered some of the questions and she’ll be participating in a LIVE follow-up discussion TODAY, 16th July from 2:00 - 4:00pm.


Facebook thread themes

Q: Is it good for the Postie to carry treats?

It may seem like an obvious thing to feed treats when anyone wants to make friends with a dog. But it can make the situation worse – in most cases the dogs are actually frightened of the postman and they will either refuse the treats (in which case it is pointless) or they will develop what we call a ‘conflict of emotions’ – the dog wants to go forward to get the treat, but is scared, wants the treat, is scared, treat, scared, treat, scared – this is a very uncomfortable situation emotionally.

On the rare occasion that the postman feeding your dog treats does improve their relationship your dog may well expect anybody who looks or acts like a postman to feed him/her – when no food is forthcoming then the dog will become confused or frustrated and will start to resent the stranger – certainly not conducive to a happy relationship.

It is much better that any treats or praise or comfort comes from the owner. This means that the dog is not forced to approach the scary stranger and the owner can give a reward of some type whenever the dog is not reacting adversely to another person.

However it may be useful for a postman to carry some treats with him/her – not to give to the dog – but to scatter on the ground (a little distance away from them) to try to distract a dog while they leave the premises. But do bear in mind that, if the dog is too scared, he will not be interested in the food.

Q: My dog hurts himself crashing into the letter box when letters are coming through- what can I do?

Q: My dog rips the letters out of the postman’s hands and I worry he will hurt him!

Q: My dog cocks his leg at the door when the postman arrives- what can I do?

With all the above, ensure that your dog is out of the way or preoccupied whenever the post arrives.

Q: My dog developed a hatred for the postman a few months ago, out of the blue!  All was fine before. Why?

I think the obvious answer is that something changed…. either a different postman, or the same postman who actually spoke to your dog through the door, or something scary happened at exactly the time that the post was delivered , or something else in your dog’s life changed so that he was less able to cope with the postman arriving.

Q: Is it true that dogs can pick up on the fear of the postman?

This is a question that the scientists have been trying to answer for some time now, trying to find the proof (or otherwise) that dogs can smell fear.

Personally I do believe that our dogs can tune into our emotions – your own dog will behave differently towards you depending on if you are happy or upset or ill – so the only answer I can give is ‘maybe’.

Q: My dog loves the postie if he is in the garden with him but barks aggressively if he sees him while he is in the house, why?

Some people may consider this to be a territorial matter – but doggy things (and thoughts) are never that simple…

The vast majority of dogs will learn things ‘contextually’ – that means that, unlike us, they find it very difficult to understand that the postie in the garden is the same person as the one they see outside.

Q: Posties wear red, is this a colour that can wind dogs up?

A lot of people still believe that dogs only see in black and white – in fact they do see many colours but are red-green colourblind – therefore they don’t distinguish the colour red. What they are very good at is identifying patterns and logos – so for dogs that react to any postman it could be the ‘pattern‘ on the uniform that the dog associates with these particular strangers.

Specific email questions

Q: My dog goes crazy when the postman arrive he runs up and down the hall to the door barking and growling. He stares out the window barking then when the letters drop he grabs and shakes them around. Please could u give me some tips to help?

This sounds like quite a severe reaction that your dog has to the postman. By far the easiest solution is to install an external postbox – this means that your dog will no longer feel ‘under attack’ from the postman and will not fly into such a panic.  Avoid allowing your dog to look out of the window when the postman is due – take him out for a walk or play with him in the garden.

In order to fully resolve this you are going to need some help in setting up a desensitisation program for your dog – contact a reputable behaviourist through APBC or ABTC.

Q: I saw this contact on Facebook, can I ask a question regarding Woody’s behaviour meeting with other dogs over the park. When he sees strange dogs he runs at them barking and acts aggressively. I would like to modify this, I would be grateful for any advice.

There are several reasons for a dog to react this way to other dogs – he may have been attacked, bitten or even just frightened by a dog in the past, he may not have had the opportunity as a puppy to learn how to properly communicate and socialise with other dogs.

Your dog will not improve on his own and he may well become more and more aggressive as time goes on.

You should really seek the help of a reputable behaviourist (APBC or ABTC) to help identify the cause and thus the best way forward for your dog. Professional Behaviourists will have a ‘stooge dog’ available to help – this is a dog that has an exceptionally good temperament with other dogs and can teach your dog not to be afraid and how to communicate appropriately.

Q: If you go onto my Facebook homepage you'll see a video clip taken on my phone of how my dog reacts when a postman or anyone tries to put mail through our letter box.

Poppy, the most adorable little dog you will ever have the pleasure of meeting, literally goes from the friendliest to the most aggressive dog once she sees a postman approaching our house.

Yes, I would love some advice! Thank you in advance.

In severe cases like this you must do everything you can to avoid the situation. It really is unfair to put Poppy through this turmoil and panic as she is basically very frightened when mail pops through the door .Take Poppy out for a walk or play with her in another room or the back garden whenever the postman is due. Consider installing an external postbox.

Consider contacting a reputable behaviourist (through APBC or ABTC) to help.

Q: Our westie is a barker...and we have problems handling this.  We are sure other exhibits of aggression in certain situations are as a result of nervousness.  Have you got any tips for addressing this please?

Any dog that is nervous (either in certain situations or in general) needs a great deal of patience and understanding from their owner. It is unfair to constantly subject your dog to situations that he/she is uncomfortable with. Consider contacting a reputable behaviourist (through APBC or ABTC) to help with the postman issue and also to help with his/her nervousness.

There are many ways of dealing with a barking dog without resorting to punishment (which will make a nervous dog worse) – only a reputable, qualified behaviourist will be able to advise on how to do this without causing further stress or trauma to your dog.

Q: I have an 18 month old female staffy who is a lovely pup but a very excitable pup, and I mean she is extremely excitable if people enter the garden or house ie jumping up, sometimes she is mouthing the cuffs of clothes, or grabbing things from people’s hands etc. This I am aware is not the greatest of behaviours and would love some help and advice to help turn this sometimes very uncomfortable situation around we do not have many visitors to the house which probably doesn't help the situation but I’ve tried all the normal training routes as much as I can ie patience training and she is a very intelligent dog and learns tricks quickly but this all goes out the window when her excitement levels reach a peak then she just becomes deaf to instruction.

She knows her sit, down, wait, give paw etc but when her excitable times are upon us nothing will stop her I’m not sure if it is because she is still in her puppy times but also my neighbours certainly don't help as they encourage her to jump up at the walls and talk squeakily/excitably to her from outside the gate which winds her up like a spring etc even though i've asked them not to encourage her & even to ignore her (I was not being mean by asking them to ignore her but it’s just to help guide her and help her control her excitability), she is a heavy weighted dog who doesn't seem to understand gentleness when excited which doesn't help the situation, even my mother can no longer come to the house to visit as she has very fragile skin that tears/bruises easily when the dog jumps at her please help us the dog has been through puppy training/socialisation classes also had training with 2 different trainers and myself  (I in the past have trained dogs for army and police etc and have always had dogs) but this is still a major issue to gain control when she becomes excitable which I know is not a good situation for her or myself.  

You have already put a great deal of time and effort into training your dog and I do appreciate how frustrating it is when excitement takes over and she doesn’t appear to listen. The problem here is that the situation is just too exciting for her to be able to listen – so you have to keep practising her obedience and tricks when there is nothing exciting happening and then start to introduce minor distractions (and I mean very gradually) building up to the really exciting stuff. This is going to take some time as she has had lots of practice ignoring your requests when something more interesting/exciting is happening.

Only ever use positive reinforcement (with lots of tasty treats) when you are training her and never resort to punishment of any kind for her excitability – that would only make her realise that you really are no fun and she’d much rather be jumping around and acting silly.

Your neighbours are certainly not helping the situation by winding her up even more, I wonder if they would be amenable to asking her to perform certain tricks instead of encouraging her excitable behaviour. Giving a paw is a good start but teach her to wave a paw when they ask her to, or to rollover or to fetch a toy for them (just let your imagination run loose).

Q: We have a rescue dog that is brilliant with humans but terrified of other dogs and tries to run from even the smallest. However if they come into his space he reacts aggressively. Apart from muzzling him we aren't sure what else to do and as he is a staffordshire terrier we're terrified he'll be taken by the police.

Your dog’s reaction to other dogs is due to some past experience where he has been frightened or hurt by another dog. The reason he becomes aggressive when they get too close is because he has now realised that he can’t run away and has to try to scare them off instead. If this is left unresolved then there is a good chance that your dog will just stop trying to run away and become aggressive as soon as he sees another dog. You need to contact a reputable behaviourist (through APBC or ABTC) who will be able to formulate a training program for your dog. He may never become the friendliest dog in the world (to other dogs) but the behaviourist will certainly be able to make your dog less frightened and therefore able to enjoy his walks.

Q: I have an 8 year old female westie who has always had a hatred of the postman, anyone delivering leaflets, people with hoods up and people wearing red (like the postman).  I have no letter box left on the back of my door as she has ripped it off bit by bit.  She is a lovely well natured dog apart from her aggression with the above. When she sees them she just goes mental and attacks the cushions, curtains, blinds, anything she can get hold off.  I can’t seem to do anything to calm her down until they are out of sight, then she goes back to being a normal loving dog.  Can you please tell me if there is anything I can do to try and calm her down when she sees the postman etc. 

Any advice you can give me would be greatly appreciated.

Your dog has had many years practising this behaviour and consequently it will be very difficult to formulate a plan to get her to accept the postman delivering mail. The attacking and ripping of cushions etc is what we call ‘redirection’ – this happens when the dog cannot actually get to the object of his/her fury and so they take the frustration out on anything that is in easy reach.

I’m sure your dog will be much happier if she never sees a postman again – consider installing an external postbox and keep her occupied elsewhere whenever the postman is due.


Here is a general Behaviour Modification Program that can be used in less severe cases of postie-reactive dogs…

·         Introduce the 'cookie jar'
·         Have a special container with tasty titbits in it on the kitchen worktop.
·         Teach your dog to go and sit by the cookie jar for a special command (eg 'sweety') before receiving a titbit. Repeat this many times.
·         Once your dog reliably goes to the kitchen on command (remember he must always receive a titbit for this) then you can begin to set up situations with a ‘pretend’ postman.
·         Arrange for somebody to come to the door and tap lightly - instead of answering the door or going to get the mail give your dog the command and both of you go to the kitchen. Repeat this many times.
·         Arrange for somebody to come to the door and place a light letter through the door - give your dog the special command and both of you go to the kitchen. Repeat this many times.
·         From now on, whenever the postman delivers mail, give the special command and you and your dog go to the kitchen to sit for a treat. Once he really gets this he will rush to the kitchen ahead of you instead of rushing to the door.
·         Take your time about going to collect the mail, remain calm and unhurried.
·         Remember to periodically give the 'sweety' command even when the postman isn’t around

Please join us for the LIVE follow-up discussion TODAY, 16th July from 2:00 - 4:00pm on Facebook.

No comments: