Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Mailman

A lot of dogs react strongly to the mailman, and for good reason. Every day they bark like ferocious hellbeasts and he leaves. Behold the power of barking! Fortunately, most dog owners can successfully pair the presence of the mailman with wonderful things like food and BarkBoxes, so their dogs can learn a better way of coping with the reality of the United States Postal Service.

Photo by Erin Koski
And then there's our mailman. He's a bit...odd. Possibly autistic? At any rate, his shirt is rarely buttoned correctly and he is always, always running as fast as he possibly can with his heavy mailbag. He's always monstrously sweaty with his hair plastered to his head, and ignores people who attempt to talk to him, wave, or even make eye contact. The mailman sets off little "not right" alarm bells in my head, so I can't really blame the dogs for freaking out.

I've been trying to reduce everyone's stress about mail delivery for the nearly four years we've been living here. Unfortunately the daily routine makes it difficult. The mailman may hit our street as early as 11am and as late as 7:30 in the evening without rhyme or reason, so it's tough to plan for his arrival.

Our first indication that the mailman is afoot is when he slams the special mailman-only door on the back of the block of mailboxes for the apartment building across the street. This is the only time this door is used, so we can't have a friendly resident help us pair the sound with tasty treats.

Next the mailman will make his way down the street, slamming mailboxes all the way. Finally he will make it to our house, where he will jog down the driveway to the other house on the property before dropping off our mail. The entire process takes about ten minutes, during most of which the mailman is out of sight and may or may not be audible. This is a lot longer than the average mail delivery, and makes it difficult to train around. Here's what I've tried so far:

Pairing exciting neighborhood events with unstimulating activities has been somewhat successful in reducing Brisbane's reactivity to skateboards, at least in the house. For a while after we moved in, I had him dragging a leash around the house. When he barked at things outside, I would calmly and silently escort him to the bathroom, flip the light on, and leave him in there until he was quiet. This made pedestrians, passing dogs, and most neighborhood activity boring enough that Briz began to ignore them. However, it failed to make the mailman less exciting. In fact, attempting to use it for our mailman problem ruined the effect by making the bathroom super exciting. Now when I stick Brisbane in there, he starts barking hysterically because he knows the mailman might be afoot!

Look at That!
Gleaned from Control Unleashed, this game teaches the dog to look forward to the appearance of their trigger by clicking and treating them for looking at said trigger. Our problem was that the mailman was only visible for a brief portion of the mail delivery period, while he was audible in the neighborhood for a good ten minutes. By the time there was anything to look at, Brisbane was already way over threshold.

Speed Treating
I've had an enormous amount of success with just feeding Brisbane treats in the presence of his triggers. This has helped him get over his issues with joggers, bicycles, and other unsavory sights. Normally I start rapid-fire handing him food as soon as he becomes aware of the trigger. The issue with the mailman is one of duration though, it's difficult to have enough treats to last through ten minutes in the presence of the trigger. It also requires me to drop whatever I am doing and just stand there feeding Brisbane continuously for the entire ten minutes. Neither of us can maintain our focus for that long.

Rain of Kibble
This is my current tactic for dealing with mailman time. I take half a cup of kibble and fling it across the kitchen and living room. Brisbane must then spend the next ten minutes or more racing Ru, the cats, and any other dogs in the house, to find and devour all the pieces. This project is distracting enough to keep Brisbane busy while the mailman makes his rounds up and down the street, and if they finish the kibble I can always toss a bit more. It doesn't require constant vigilance on my part, so it's something I can do even when I'm in the middle of something. It also gets my floors kind of gross, but so far the peace and quiet during mailman time is worth it.

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