Addie Harris sees aggressive dogs almost every day, but the first time one actually attacked her was in January.
The 54-year-old postwoman was delivering mail to a house in north Houston when a border collie escaped through a neighbor’s fence and lunged at her. Harris tried to shield herself with her mail bag, but it was too late.
“He jumped up on me and bit me right here,” said Harris, who has worked in the United States Postal Service for 25 years, five as a mail carrier. Sitting in a back room at the North Shepherd Post Office, she pulled her collar down slightly, revealing a scar near her breastbone.
Harris wasn’t badly injured — just a little shaken up. The owner came out and apologized. Harris drove back to the North Shepherd Post Office, where she filled out dog-bite paperwork. After it was confirmed the border collie posed no health risks to humans, he was returned to his owners.
From crime-ridden streets to inclement weather, postal workers deal with a lot to bring us our mail. Dogs are one of their main job hazards. There were 6,755 dog attacks on postal workers in 2016, including 62 in Houston. That’s more than one attack per week for a workforce of just 4,500 carriers.
Houston came in second in the number of postal worker dog bites last year, just behind Los Angeles, according to USPS statistics. And the area served by the North Shepherd Post Office is particularly bad for attacks, said Nikki Johnson, a spokeswoman for Houston USPS.
Johnson isn’t sure why Houston has such a dog bite problem. Both Houston and Los Angeles are sprawling cities filled with low-density neighborhoods, where a large animal might be able to wander undetected for longer than in, say, New York City. But Johnson stressed stray dogs aren’t as much of a problem as house pets, since strays are usually less territorial. Often, she said, carriers were injured when a dog rushed from a property in an effort to defend its owner.
“We do have a lot of pet lovers here,” she added.
Mail carriers receive basic training on what to do when a dog attacks. They’re taught to put their mail satchel between themselves and the animal, as Harris did. Each satchel carries bottles of Back Off, a repellent. The mail scanners used by USPS will let postal workers know if a delivery address has potentially dangerous pets, based on reports from other carriers. And, for emergencies, there’s also a GPS panic button.
Protective dogs threaten more than just postal workers. Each year, around 800,000 people end up in emergency rooms with dog bites. And children “are 900 times more likely to be bitten than letter carriers,” according to a USPS news release. In April, the postal service celebrated National Dog Bite Prevention Week, an annual holiday meant to spread awareness about keeping dogs from biting people.
All of this brings to mind an interesting question: Does man's best friend really act more aggressively toward mail workers, compared to adults of other professions? While the research on this topic is thin, there are plenty of pseudo-theories behind this nugget of folk wisdom. Maybe dogs are wary of strangers who make regular appearances? Maybe something about a postal worker’s uniform worries dogs?
Canine psychologists caution there isn’t much evidence to back these ideas up. Kyle Smith, a lab coordinator at the Duke Canine Cognition Center at Duke University, chalked “this idea that dogs particularly go after mailmen” up to confirmation bias.
“My guess would be that people notice [dogs barking at letter carriers] because that’s the stranger dogs are encountering,” he said. “They’re not going to notice if their dogs are particularly aggressive to firefighters, because firefighters aren’t coming to the house as often.”
When asked these same questions, Laurie Santos, director of the Canine Cognition Center at Yale University, said via email that she also worried about confirmation bias. “I don't know of any data showing that dogs are in fact more aggressive with postal workers,” she wrote. “The premise might be problematic.”
Still, it isn’t hard to find a letter carrier who’s had a bad run-in with a dog. And for the postal workers who are attacked, it could feel like they were singled out.
Even Nikki Johnson, the USPS spokeswoman, had been attacked. Before she "moved to corporate," as she put it, Johnson had worked as a carrier in Third Ward. She was getting back to her mail truck when a pit bull, who was using the bathroom in a nearby front yard, ran at her.
Johnson managed to spray the dog with Back Off, but he kept charging. “We tussled a bit and he knocked me down,” she said. “It was a very scary situation.” Although she said the owners were “very apologetic,” she told them she didn’t feel comfortable delivering mail to their house until they made sure their pit bull wouldn’t get out again.
“The dog that attacked me, I knew his name and everything,” she said. When asked why she felt dogs targeted postal workers, she laughed. “I thought it was the smell of the mail,” she said. “I really don’t know. We have all kinds of theories.”
Addie Harris still walks the same route where she was bitten. On a recent weekday, USPS invited the Houston Press to join her as she delivered mail. Harris pulled up to a quiet, tree-lined street in north Houston, wearing a carrier uniform. Johnson, who also joined, sported business casual.
As Harris wandered quickly down her route, she gestured to familiar landmarks. A few streets away was the house where she was bitten, she said. Then she pointed to a house on the corner, where she’d also had some scary run-ins and was concerned about the short height of the fence. “I will not deliver there,” she said.
Harris had developed a stoic, street-smart approach to perceived dog threats. As she carried mail to one house, a pit bull in a front yard next door snarled at her, stretching its tether to the limit. Harris shrugged it off. The dog was tied up, she noted. Besides, she’d never had problems with that one. Harris had come to know the personalities of the dogs on her route. She could tell which ones were, so to speak, all bark and no bite.
After the attack, Harris said, she "feared going to that house for a while." "I was very nervous," she said. "I had to take a couple days." But the experience didn't ruin her love of dogs. At her home in Humble, she has a chihuahua and a shih tzu.