Tinkle in the Mailbox

Why is it that dogs bark at the Mailman?

Ever since we got my dog Buddy almost 2 years ago, he has always barked at the mailman*.  I did not think much about it until one day, while I was on phone with a friend of mine, Buddy started barking loudly and profusely. I looked through the storm door and noticed that my dog, snarling and lunging at the door aggressively, was barking at none other than the mailman who was going about his job.

When I told this to my friend, her expression was, “Really. So what I hear about dogs barking at the mailman is TRUE?”.  Since I had not heard anyone else say this before, as soon as we hung up the phone, I went about finding out if all dogs bark at the mailman or only my little terrier mix has a propensity for it.

And whoa, what do I find! Everything from scientific analysis of the dog’s brain to quips from a layman.

A simplistic scientific explanation is that when dogs see the mailman at the door, it evokes in them feelings of fear and anger. Fear because a stranger is intruding in their territory and anger, that despite their barking at this stranger, the mailman still has not left the premises and is busy putting the mail in the mailbox.  In his book “The Canine Aggression Workbook”, the author James O’ Heare explains that fear and anger produce adrenaline. Anger also releases another hormone called noradrenaline. These chemical secretions, generally produced during times of stress and danger, mobilize dogs to action, are addictive and result in a repeat of this aggressive behavior by the dog.

A simplistic layman explanation is that the dogs are territorial and when a mailman, a stranger, comes to the door, they instinctively bark at him to ward him away. Since the mailman leaves soon after, the dog thinks that he is the cause of it, producing in him a sense of accomplishment.  This aggressive response and reward sequence happening every day eventually becomes a habit for the dog.

So here you have it, an explanation of why is it that a dog barks at the mailman.

Fear, anger, and instinct govern not just behavior of the dog but strongly influence how we, the human beings, behave in our day to day life. We all have mailman in our life, called hot-buttons, and if anyone pushes them, we instinctively start “barking” bad words. Our fear and anger instinctively propel us to say hurtful things to the person pushing our hot-button. Hurting the other person or eliciting a strong response from them provides us immediate relief.  Even though a mailman comes and goes away, the dog still barks at him every day. Similarly, even though we may logically know that the other person is trying to incite us or the other person is angry and does not really mean what they are saying, the feelings of fear and anger tide over us and we instinctively respond in a disagreeable way, with our goal being to invoke similar feelings in the other person.

An aggressive dog left loose can potentially bite the mailman, resulting possibly in the loss of the dog and or money.  Similarly, a hot-button fight left unbridled can possibly cause a loss of friendship, partnership or trust. A dog who will not let any stranger in the house can cost you your life if it prevents medical technicians from coming to your house in case of an emergency.  A hot-button fight that causes you to be inconsiderate, insulting and nasty, can cost you your peace of mind and more due to irreparable damage to a relationship. So tame your dog to be more accepting of strangers and tame your mind to not flare up in face of a dire verbal attack.

Just as some mailman have started carrying dog treats with them when delivering mail, it is time for us to set a timer in our brain to count till 100, to walk out of the room or to go jog with the dog when someone pushes our hot-button.  

* I am using the term mailman since it is common usage.  It also refers to mail lady.

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