Many dogs bark at the mailman, even dogs who are normally pretty mellow beings with no interest in stirring trouble seem to not resist this urge, so it therefore comes natural to wonder what's up with dogs and postal workers. In order to better understand the behavior, it helps to think like a dog and see the world through a dog's perspective.
A Predisposition for Barking
Many people tend to compare dogs with wolves, but it's important to point out that dogs are domesticated beings, and as such, they have diverged from wolves anywhere between 15,000 to 40,000 years ago.
While several of a dog’s instinctive behaviors can be said to have been passed down from their wild ancestors; barking is interestingly not one of them.
Indeed, wolves in the wild are not seen barking very often considering that barking would draw attention to them which can put them in danger. When faced by danger, wolves would rather silently hide in an area until the danger has passed.
Barking is a behavior that has evolved with the dog as dogs became domesticated and accompanied humans through many millennia. There are several theories as to why and how a dog's barking has evolved.
One theory has it that humans simply started selectively breeding dogs for their barking capabilities. Dogs prone to barking were bred with other dogs who barked as well. Those who didn't bark instead were disposed as being useless, explains Stanley Coren in the book: "How to Speak Dog."
Ironically, while barking was much cherished in the past so dogs could alert humans of intruders or the presence of prey animals, nowadays, barking is considered more of a nuisance.
Another theory has it that, as some point in the domestication process, dogs have started retaining juvenile wolf traits (neoteny) such as larger eyes, flattened faces, and along with that, whining and barking.
Regardless of what theory is true, the results have yielded a vocal animal with a predisposition for barking out of defense, frustration, happiness, loneliness, attention and barking taking place even during play.
Did you know? Wolf barking is pretty rare considering that it comprises only 2.3 percent of all the vocalizations made by these animals. According to a study wolves bark only for warning, defense, and protest, while dogs instead tend to bark in a wide variety of social situations. Juvenile wolves are the most likely to bark, while adult wolves seldom do.
The Power of Reinforcement
Sure, domestication has made dog more vocal, but why do dogs bark so much at the mailman? Why do some dogs seem to hate the mailman with a passion? This is likely because there is some level of reinforcement at play.
Barking at the mailman can be a highly reinforcing behavior because every time the dog barks, the mailman retreats and goes away.
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Well... in reality, it's not like the mailman is really retreating specifically because the dog barks, it's just that he happens to deliver the mail and then leaves on a daily basis. But let's take a closer look into the the dynamics.
It may start one day as your dog is a puppy. Your puppy is in the yard, when the mailman arrives. Your pup may startle at first upon hearing his truck or as he opens the mailbox and drops the mail. At first, your pup may back up a little, but the next day, perhaps he gains the courage to emit a small bark as he backs up.
Coincidentally, when your pup barks, the mailman has dropped the mail and leaves. How does your puppy perceive this? He likely assumes that it's thanks to his barking that the mailman has left, so in the next day he tries again to test his theory. "Woof!" and the mailman leaves.
"Wow, my barking makes him leave, How powerful is that!" may think the puppy. Well, of course, he might not think so rationally, but you get the message.
Here's the thing, behaviors that are reinforced tend to repeat and strengthen, so once your dog makes the connection between his bark and the mailman leaving, you can be sure to hear him barking every single time he sees him, possibly for the rest of his life.
On top of this, your dog's barking may then generalize to other people who tend to come and go such as meter readers, UPS and Fedex drivers and even the young pizza guy delivering a pie.
Sounding the Alarm
The above of course is only a theory. Until the day dogs can talk, we can only make assumptions as to why dogs do the many odd things they do.
Since dogs seem to bark regardless of whether the intruder withdraws, hangs out of the doorway or enters the home, there are chances they are just sounding an alarm or announcing the presence of an intruder, points out Jean Donaldson in the book: "Oh Behave: Dogs from Pavlov to Premack to Pinker."
These dogs' barking behavior most likely have a dual purpose: to provide the owner with an "intruder alert" and to inform the intruder that his presence has been detected.
Anticipation Building Up
Dogs who are relegated to the yard or at home all day with access to windows may be the most propense to barking. These dogs may be more likely to bark out of loneliness, frustration (barrier frustration barking is common in dogs who want to greet people and a fence prevents them), boredom or fear.
However, many dogs will bark even when dog owners are at home as a way of alerting them to the presence of a stranger or some suspicious noise. Regardless, with time, most of these dogs come starting to anticipate the mailman's arrival, day after day, since mailmen tend to visit around the same time every day.
Whether your dog dreads the mailman or seeks his arrival with happy anticipation, his feelings build up and then finally culminate in an explosion of barking by the time the mailman finally arrives.
Now That You Know...
As seen, dogs have several valid reasons for barking. Many dog owners want to know how to address their dog's barking and specifically, how to stop them from barking at the mailman. This type of barking is not easy to stop, often because it has a strong rehearsal history and it's highly instinctive. There are ways though to redirect the behavior for those dog owners who have the time and patience to keep up the training.
- Reduce visibility. Apply window film to your windows or block off access to them if your dog climbs on a sofa to look outside. Pull the blinds or simply keep your dog in a room where he cannot see outside.
- Mask the sounds. Many dogs will still bark even if they can no longer see the mailman. It may help to keep the radio or T.V. on in hopes of masking the outdoor noises.
- Create positive associations. Systematically work on the barking issue through gradual exposure (desensitization) and work on changing your dog’s emotions about the mailman through counter-conditioning.
- You can initially use the "hear that" method to desensitize your dog to all the sounds the mailman produces, and then, you can switch to the visual aspect using a program such open bar/closed bar, where treats are given when the mailman is in sight and treats are stopped once the mailman leaves.
Once positive associations are made, you can start training your dog an alternate, default behavior upon seeing the mailman. You can for instance ask your dog to sit or go to his mat, reinforcing these behaviors with high value treats so that your dog will pick to perform these behaviors instead of rushing to the window or fence and barking.