In the next installment of our "Ask a Trainer" column with Rachel Cohen Maso CPDT-KA of Brooklyn Dogtime, Ollie gets her thoughtful advice on what to do when a normally sweet pup turns on delivery people.
Ollie: I adopted my dog about three years ago. He was a stray we found on a trip to Columbia. He gets along with most dogs and people, but he freaks out at delivery people and mail carriers. It started as he got comfortable in our home and began to get territorial. A few weeks after moving in we got a furniture delivery and he wasn’t happy with a stranger carrying in a heavy piece of furntiture into the house. Now it happens every time we get a delivery—he barks at the door like he wants to make sure everyone knows it is his home. We have tried feeding him treats when the doorbell rings but his reaction changes whenever the carrier comes into our home.
Rachel: There are few issues that have so strongly permeated American culture when it comes to dogs. From Huckleberry Hound to Family Guy, we are taught to laugh when dogs bark at and chase mail carriers. But in real life, this behavior can have serious consequences.
Why is he reacting this way? It may be that your dog was never socialized to the sight of novel people in uniforms carrying big boxes as a puppy, or having someone hang outside your front door triggers territorial behavior. Many delivery people are already afraid of dogs from past experience, so it’s also likely that your dog is reading unease in their body language causing your “angel” to suddenly be on guard. Or perhaps, your dog’s initial excitement about a new person quickly turned to frustration or fear when they aren't allowed to greet them.
Whatever the reason, there are a few simple changes you can make to your own behavior to help. It’s easy to get upset with our dogs when they display inappropriate behavior, but punishing your dog physically or verbally will only make things worse. If your dog is lunging, barking or chasing someone, believe me, they're freaked out! To suddenly act uncharacteristically harsh towards your pup when they are already on the defensive only reinforces that there must really be something wrong! But how can you remain calm when your dog behaves so threateningly?
You already know your dog is going to go nuts, so remove them from the situation beforehand: Place your dog in a back room or behind a baby gate, with some entertainment like a bone or Kong, when you know the delivery person is about to arrive. This will allow you to more calmly handle your dog’s response without having to hold him by the collar screaming “NO” or “BAD DOG” to no avail (and also aggravating him in the process).
The method widely used by positive reinforcement trainers for this scenario is called Counter Conditioning. Through the use of food, your dog will build a more positive association over time with the person that is triggering them because something good happens when the trigger appears. Here's how to practice it:
Have your dog on leash or behind a baby gate. First note when your dog notices the mail carrier, does he react at the sound of the doorbell or footsteps on the stairs? Your training should begin the moment your dog becomes aware of their presence, but before he begins reacting negatively. Then it’s time for you to make a delivery of your own—in the form of delicious treats! The second the delivery person disappears, the treats stop. Repeat as necessary. All training should happen when your dog is alert but not reactive. This means you might focus on the doorbell alone for a bit before letting your dog see someone in the doorway!
For some dogs, this will work after the first couple of sessions, for others this may take some weeks. The key is to be consistent and to set up a routine that you and your family can easily follow. If your dog can’t yet handle the situation in real time then it’s time to enlist a dog-friendly pal (or a trainer) to play dress up and reenact the situation so you can practice.
By not letting your dog get initially riled up, and by conditioning calm behavior, they will build a more positive association with the delivery people over time. If good things happen every time they show up it’s possible to turn your delivery hater into a dog that wiggles with glee every time the doorbell rings, regardless of who's there.
If your particular case is not too severe, then giving your dog treats when the offending party arrives may be enough. For more extreme cases, you will want to work with a professional. The positioning of your dog and the timing of the treats is essential. And a trainer can help you master these key points to see success through counter conditioning.