The mailman syndrome (aka reactivity) in dogs

Tahiti, an Australian shepherd, suffers from a case of mailman syndrome. Maybe you have never heard of this particular condition, but you might be able to guess what it is.

Tahiti is scared of new people. To compensate for her lack of confidence, she sometimes barks and lunges at unfamiliar folks from behind the fence of her run.

Best Friends dog trainer Tim Molina explains her issue this way: “Think of a little Chihuahua who barks at the mailman (a fearful behavior). The mailman comes to the porch and drops the mail in the slot, then leaves. The dog keeps barking as the mailman leaves. In the Chihuahua’s mind, he made the mailman leave because he was barking.”

Dog reactivity

Reactivity is a common behavioral issue in dogs, and Tahiti’s case is classic. Fear is often at the root of this behavior. “When people walk in (to the area where her run is), she lunges right at the gate, and it doesn’t look too friendly,” says Tim. However, once introduced, Tahiti treats the newcomer like her best friend.

Tahiti has also had some challenges with other dogs. Tim says she is hit or miss. She is friends with several dogs at the Sanctuary, but in general she isn’t very fond of other dogs.

Personalized training plan for a dog

Tahiti currently lives at Maggie’s, one of the areas in Dogtown for dogs who need specialized training. To address her reactivity issues, caregivers created a customized training plan for her.

Trainers are working to help Tahiti become better socialized. To this end, she meets two new people – sometimes staff and other times volunteers to the Sanctuary – each and every day. Tim explains the training protocol: “We caution the people going in to not give a hard stare or lean toward her. When people enter the run, we have them verbally engage her, making sure that they don’t give her eye contact. Once in, they are to hand-feed her and engage her.” Within minutes, Tahiti has a new BFF.

To help Tahiti get along better with other canines, trainers use a couple of different training techniques. While she is in her run, they bring another dog into the building where she is able to see them. Trainers reward Tahiti with a treat when she is quiet and calm. Also, since Tahiti can be reactive toward other dogs on leash, when she first meets a new dog pal one-on-one, she is introduced to him or her by going on an off-leash hike.

Tim also takes Tahiti on trail runs three times per week. Tim says, “This really helps her to relax and act like a normal dog. When she doesn't get to stretch her legs, that's when we start to see Tahiti's challenges come out.”

Australian shepherd is a great dog

Tahiti is a great dog with a great personality. “I've been in love with Tahiti since the first day that I met her,” says Tim. Though she’s still a bit wary of the “mailman” (i.e., other people and dogs she hasn’t met previously), you have a friend for life once she knows you.

Adopt an affectionate gal

Looking for a loyal friend who would always be up for a hike, a run, a ride in the car, or just a snuggle on the couch? Tahiti has her very own Facebook page.

Photos by Molly Wald and Sarah Ause Kichas