Postal Service encourages safe dog practices amid increase of Idaho attacks involving letter carriers

April 16, 2019

Dogs may be man’s best friend, but the time-old saying doesn’t necessarily hold true for Idaho mail carriers.

The number of dog attacks on postal workers in Idaho rose in 2018 amid a nationwide decline, according to new figures released Thursday by the U.S. Postal Service.

Twenty-five Idaho postal carriers were bitten by dogs last year, up from 22 in 2017. This includes two in Idaho Falls and one in Pocatello, the news release said. Nationwide, 5,714 postal employees were attacked in 2018 — down nearly 500 from 2017.

Postal officials say it’s not the dogs that are the problem; it’s the owners who fail to restrain their dogs.

“The dogs are only doing what is instinctive to them, which is protecting their property and family,” Idaho Falls Postmaster Tony Haws said in a news release. “It’s the dog owners who need to step up and restrain their dogs so our carriers can safely deliver the mail.”

In light of the uptick in dog versus mail carrier incidents, local U.S. Postal Service officials are asking people to be more responsible restraining their dogs when the mail carrier arrives each day. The education effort is happening alongside the U.S. Postal Service celebrating National Dog Bite Prevention Week, which runs through April 20.

Of more than two dozen dog attacks in Idaho last year, some of the attacks resulted in letter carriers requiring medical attention beyond first-aid that forced them to miss time from work.

Pocatello letter carrier Brett Hochhalter has been attacked by dogs several times during two decades on the job, though he has never been hospitalized. He recalled one experience that could have cost him his life, had things gone differently.

It was a typical breezy June day about six years ago and Hochhalter was shuffling door-to-door delivering mail along his route near Idaho State University, when seemingly out of nowhere, he was face to face with an ornery, unleashed pit bull.

“I was delivering to a house on South Sixth Avenue and the owner didn’t have the dog on the leash,” Hochhalter said. “As soon as the dog saw me, he rushed my way, and I tried to get my bag out in front of me, but he was too quick. He got me underneath my armpit, but he was going for my jugular.”

Gripping the dog in a bear-hug was all Hochhalter could do to limit the damage after the dog locked his jaws and began to thrash around.

“Animal Control told me a dog’s first instinct is to go for the neck,” Hochhalter said. “But when I fell back he got my armpit, locked his jaw and I just squeezed his head toward my torso as he shook.”

Hochhalter said he didn’t require stitches after the attack, nor did he need any medical attention in the two attacks prior, which involved a sheepdog nipping his rear-end and another small bite from a dog at a home he had been delivering mail to for about eight years.

The incident involving the dog Hochhalter was familiar with for nearly a decade proved to the letter carrier that you can never trust how an animal will react when it’s defending its territory.

Dogs bite for a variety of reasons, but most commonly as a reaction to something, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. If a dog finds itself in a stressful situation, it may bite to defend itself or its territory, because they are scared or have been startled, or to protect something that is valuable to them, like their puppies, their food or their home.

“There’s a myth we often hear at the Postal Service: Don’t worry, my dog won’t bite,” Pocatello Officer-in-Charge Angela Hughes said in a press release. “Any dog can bite and all attacks are preventable through responsible pet ownership.”

Hochhalter added, “I’ve learned to never trust any animal while I’m delivering my mail. You never know what they are thinking and they will do anything to protect their property.”

Mail carriers have tools and tactics to defend themselves from aggressive dogs. Their thick, nylon satchel bags work as shields, said Hochhalter, adding that if the satchel defense isn’t enough, carriers are also armed with pepper-spray for animals.

“We have mace, but I don’t like using it because once you do that, all the dog does is hate the uniform in general,” Hochhalter said. “If I were to ever call in sick and someone has to cover my route, I don’t want to put them at risk just because the dog recognizes his clothing.”

To limit the number of dog attacks involving letter carriers, the U.S. Postal Service recommends the following:

Firstly, if a postal carrier delivers a certified letter or a package to your front door, place your dog into a separate room and close the door before opening the front door. Dogs have been known to burst through screen doors or plate-glass windows to get at strangers.

And secondly, dog owners should remind their children about the need to keep the family dog secured. Parents should remind their children not to take mail directly from postal carriers in the presence of the family pet as the dog may see handing mail to a child as a threatening gesture.

“For me, the best place for a dog is in the backyard fenced off away from us,” Hochhalter said. “But every scenario is a little different. If the dog doesn’t like you, he’ll bite you. At the end of the day, you just have to be cautious because you’ll never have any idea what a dog is thinking.”