sealPurdue News

November 1996

Dog-vs.-mail-carrier notion barks up the wrong tree

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- It's a common misconception that dogs are especially inclined to take a nip out of mail carriers, says a Purdue University authority on the interaction between people and animals.

"Some dog experts think that dogs are naturally hostile toward uniforms," says Professor Alan M. Beck, director of the Center for Applied Ethology and Human-Animal Interaction. "Dogs don't attack mail carriers just because of the uniform. The No. 1 reason mail carriers get bitten is they keep invading the dog's territory. The same thing would happen no matter what the mail carrier was wearing."

That's because the dog doesn't have time to get acquainted with the intruder and perceives it as a threat each time the yard is entered, Beck explains. A dog's natural instinct is to protect its territory.

In 1995, approximately 2,850 U.S. Postal Service personnel were bitten by dogs. Beck says he's one of the few people to have systematically studied dog bites among letter carriers. In a study of mail carriers in St. Louis, Beck found that nearly all of the bites were from dogs with owners -- not from strays.

He also found that about two-thirds of the carriers said they had more difficulties with dogs when the owners were present. "This indicates that dogs may be more likely to attack when they think they're protecting a family member from an intruder," Beck says.

Familiarity also plays a role, says Beck, especially in situations that are motivated by the dog's territorial behavior. "So a mail carrier who visits the house regularly may be less likely to be bitten than is a total stranger who comes to the house just once," he says. "But if a dog has been aroused by chasing something else just prior to the carrier coming into the yard, then the mail carrier would have a good chance of being bitten, too."

Bites on carriers affect all of us, Beck says, noting that when the carrier is taken off the job, even for a day for medical care and paperwork, it increases the cost of delivering the mail. The dog gets in trouble, too, which is a cost for the owner, he says.

Beck says more research and education need to be done to minimize dog bites for anyone. Steps to take include:

"Ultimately, it's owners who are morally and legally responsible for keeping their pets from causing injury," Beck says.

CONTACT: Beck, (765) 494-0854; e-mail,; Web,
Compiled by Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; e-mail;
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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