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What's with the stigma between dogs and mailmen? Why does your dog lose it whenever the mailman comes to deliver letters and parcels each day?
There are a few reasons. First of all, your dog is trying to protect you and your home for someone he doesn't know. After all, the mail person does not come in the house and make friends with you or your dog. Which leads to another reason your dog barks: he gets a payoff for barking when the strange person approaches his territory and then leaves. Your dog feels he has succeeded in driving off the threat, he has been rewarded and reinforced for his behavior! Also, the mailperson is easy to predict. He or she comes at the same time each day, and your dog is alerted to their approach by the sound of other dogs in the neighborhood barking. For these reasons, teaching your dog not to bark at the mailman can be a challenge!
A dog that barks at the mail carrier is alerting you to potential danger. Teaching your dog that the mail person is not a threat will be the key to teaching your dog to stop barking at the mail carrier. It is natural for your dog to alert you to potential threats, to you, your home, and himself. The behavior you are after is to help your dog distinguish between what, and who, is and isn't a threat.
Your first step will be making sure that your dog is well socialized, regardless of their age. A dog that is predisposed to seek positive attention from other people can be taught who and what they need to alert to. Part of your training will be to specifically teach your dog the mail carrier is not a threat, which will often involve introducing your mailperson to your dog and creating a positive association.
In a rural community where everyone has large dogs, the dogs are loose to protect farms. Residents all have mailboxes at the end of their driveways. The local mail lady carried inexpensive treats with her whenever she delivered the mail. She would drop a few treats for the resident dog and soon she had even the most grumpy old farm dogs running down the driveway to her with tails wagging and taking treats eagerly from her hand, and none of them ever barked at her! In fact, the neighborhood dogs waited by their mailboxes at the same time each day, eager for her arrival. Most mail carriers are not going to go this far to create a positive relationship with your dog, so you will have to create the positive association instead.
To teach your dog not to bark at the mail carrier, you will need to be available when the mailperson approaches to create a different reaction. If this is not possible, have an assistant that can be at your home at the appropriate time each day, or an assistant to disguise themselves as a mail carrier at an alternate time of day when you are available. You will need treats and whatever you may need to create an alternate behavior to barking, such as a mat or toy. Remember, your dog has already created a negative association, a perceived threat, with your mailperson. Do not punish your dog for barking, as this will only strengthen the negative association. Also, if you yell at your dog, your dog just thinks you are barking along with him, so make sure you have a plan that does not involve reinforcing the behavior you are trying to extinguish.
The Positive Association Method
Take it to the streets
Take your dog out on a walk at the same time the mail carrier is in your neighborhood. By introducing the mail person in a different situation than on your property, you will minimize your dog's previous reaction, as your dog is not protecting your property. Although, he may still bark to protect you and himself. If your dog can be aggressive, make sure you have good control with a sturdy leash and collar and a basket muzzle if necessary.
When the mail person approaches, distract your dog with obedience commands he is familiar with, like 'sit', 'down', or 'heel'.
Reward your dog if he responds appropriately. If wearing a muzzle, reward with affection. If not, reward with food treats. If your dog barks and is aggressive to the mail person, take your dog further away from the delivery person until you are at a distance where your dog can respond appropriately to commands.
Repeat, moving a little closer to the delivery person each time you encounter him or her, until your dog responds to commands and does not bark in the presence of the mail person.
Continue walking your dog near the mail carrier. Whenever you encounter the mail carrier and your dog reacts calmly, provide treats.
Involve mail carrier
If your mail person is willing, have them provide treats to your dog. Have your mail person at first toss or drop treats onto the ground for your dog to retrieve. Later, if your dog is calm and not aggressive, the mail person can provide treats directly.
Try at home
Once a positive association has been created with the mail carrier, wait in your home for the mail person's delivery each day. When the mail person approaches your home, provide treats and praise to your dog for being quiet. If your dog barks, give an obedience command to distract, ignore barking, and reward obedience and quiet.
The Command Quiet Method
Have an assistant approach door
Wait for an assistant who is playing a mail carrier to approach your house. Have the assistant remain on the doorstep as long as necessary for barking to stop. Be ready with a high value treat on the other side of the door.
When your dog stops barking, even for a moment to catch his breath or investigate the treat, say "quiet" and provide the treat. Then your assistant can leave.
Distract to create quiet
If your dog keeps barking, blow a whistle, or shake a can of marbles to create a distraction. When your dog stops to attend the distraction, say "quiet" and provide the treat. Practice until the noise maker is no longer required.
Associate command and repeat
Repeat daily until your dog learns an association between the command 'quiet', not barking, a treat, and the carrier leaving. Gradually increase the length of time your dog needs to be quiet before getting the treat and the assistant leaving.
Replace treats with praise
Gradually remove the treat and replace with praise. Continue to use the 'quiet' command in various situations and when the real mail person approaches the house. If necessary, return to a previous step to reinforce quiet with distraction and treats.
The Provide an Alternative Method
Block usual spot
Block the area in front of your door or window off, wherever your dog usually stands and barks at the mailman, so that your dog can no longer go to that area to bark.
Crete new spot
Teach your dog to go to a mat or his bed when you command him to do so. You can reinforce this behavior with a command and clicker training.
Before the mailman is due to come, or when you have arranged to have an assistant come to the door pretending to be the mailman, command your dog to go to his mat.
Reinforce new spot and behavior
When the mail person or assistant approaches your yard, reinforce your dog with a treat or provide a chew toy or favorite toy to play with on his bed or mat.
Continue to reinforce
When the mail person comes to the door, continue to distract your dog and reinforce him for staying on his mat. If your dog leaves his mat, command him back to his mat.
Distract when neccessary
If your dog barks, distract him. Make a loud noise with a whistle, remove his toy, stop providing treats.
Practice to establish
When your dog is quiet, provide toy, play, or give treats. Repeat daily until you can command your dog to go to his place when the mailman or anyone else comes to the door and he starts barking. Your dog should go his place and be quiet to receive a reward.
By Laurie Haggart
Published: 10/27/2017, edited: 01/08/2021