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Dogged by Danger : Postal Workers Face Increased Risk of Canine Attacks in Summer

The dog days of summer are back--and with a bite, postal carriers say.

Dog attacks on postal workers this summer have more than doubled since spring, due in large part to the hot weather and vacationing kids who give the animals free rein, postal spokesman Joseph Breckenridge said.

“Dogs are walking around in these fur coats, and they’re not very comfortable,” Breckenridge said. “It’s hot, and the dogs get in a grumpy mood, and the mailman ends up with the surgeon putting a few pieces of thread into his leg.”

From January to March, there were an average of seven dog attacks per month on Orange County postal carriers. From April to July, as the weather grew warmer, the average number of attacks rose to 16. So far this year, there have been a total of 85 dog attacks compared to 92 for all of last year.

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“More and more people do not have dogs for pleasure,” said Hector Godinez, postal division manager. “They get dogs for protection, so most of the dogs they get are biters.”

Five dog bites on postal carriers have been reported in Garden Grove alone since April, three of them last month. And near-misses are legion, said Garden Grove carrier Karen Martin. A few weeks ago, a carrier there was chased by two pit bulls and forced to climb atop a car to escape.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a small dog or a big dog: They all bite. It’s our biggest problem,” Martin said.

Recently, on the first leg of Garden Grove carrier Mollie Johnston’s route, more than a dozen deliveries were punctuated by the sounds of barking dogs. Johnston refuses to deliver to homes in which dogs are restrained merely by a screen door, noting that a dog could be strong or aggressive enough to break through it.

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And carriers do meet such dogs. Johnston recalls one angry pit bull that mustered enough momentum to dent a pickup truck with its body in vain pursuit of a fellow postal worker.

On her route, Johnston was wary of houses with open garage doors and almost bypassed one house whose front door was open. But the owner came out and asked for her mail.

“If she hadn’t come out, I wouldn’t have delivered. I would have saved it for the next day,” Johnston said.

She has been a mail carrier for 18 months and was first attacked less than two months after she started.

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“In my first 60 days, I was attacked by two German shepherds,” she said. “They tore up my jeans and my (high-top sneakers).” She was not injured in the incident.

Since then, she has thwarted an attacking pit bull with a swiftly sprayed application of Halt, a stinging dog repellent carried by postal workers that consists of cayenne pepper in a mineral-oil base.

Postal workers employ a number of precautions to ward off attacks, Johnston said. They keep records of where dog problems have occurred and warn carriers when they begin their routes. Postal workers are trained to use their satchels in self-defense as a last resort.

Despite this summer’s increase, Breckenridge said he believes that carrier vigilance is helping to keep the figures “mercifully low.”

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Postal workers’ precautions have had a significant impact nationwide, he noted. The number of dog attacks dropped to 3,000 last year--half the level of three years ago.

Breckenridge said “repeated violations of the dog’s domain” are to blame for the legendary feud between mail carriers and man’s best friend.

“People see it as a funny little war between postal carriers and dogs,” he added. “But it’s not funny when you’ve been bitten.”

Times correspondent Shannon Sands contributed to this story.

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ORANGE COUNTY MAIL CARRIER DOG BITES, 1990.

Total bites this year to date: 85

Total bites 1989: 92 J: 6 F: 6 M: 8 A: 15 M: 12 J: 21 J: 17

Source: Gordon Deapen, director of human resources for the Santa Ana Division of the U.S. Postal Service.

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