Every dog wants to be the master of his domain! And every single day (except for Sunday) in your dog’s eyes, an intruder comes to your house and tries to break in. Thankful for you and your belongings, your brave and valiant dog chases away that intruder every day. Who is this mystery intruder? The mailman of course!
But have you ever wondered exactly why dogs bark at the mailman every time? It goes beyond just stranger danger!
You see, things that make your dog feel good (reinforcers) make behaviors stronger. For example, your dog sits at your feet while you eat because that one time, you let a tasty morsel fall to the floor, so he learned to wait there in case it happens again. And while we tend to think of reinforcers as treats, toys or affection, one reinforcer we don’t often think of is when something threatening is removed from a situation.
Such is the case with the mailman. Every day, your dog’s space is threatened by the mailman, leading Fido to bark and go crazy at the door in an attempt to shoo away the threat. The mailman leaves because he or she is finished delivering the mail, but your dog thinks that he made the mailman go away, and that’s a great feeling! The barking behavior is strengthened, or reinforced, every time the threat leaves, so Fido continues to save your family every day at mail time.
While this behavior is generally harmless (and kind of adorable), some dogs can be very sensitive to it, to the point of having behavioral problems or aggressive outbursts when anyone knocks at the door, not just the mailman.
So what can you do to stop it? A little basic training goes a long way.
Be proactive! If you know what time your mailman generally comes, plan training sessions around that time. Have your dog on leash, and practice your sits, stays and quiets when the mailman is around. If you set up a controlled situation and work through it, you have a better shot at your dog following your direction the next time a “surprise intruder” shows up.
Teach your dog how to “go to place,” or find a bed, crate or mat on command, and stay there until released. This way, if your dog is charging the door when you go to get a package, you can cue him to “go to place”’ until you bring it in. Again, remember to practice in non-distracting situations first. If your dog is too excited to work through the distraction, you are no better off. Back down the distraction level and work your way up until your dog can handle it.