When John Randolph walks his 3-mile mail route each workday, he stays on the lookout for one of the greatest threats confronting workers of the U.S. Postal Service: the family dog.
Randolph, a 23-year veteran who delivers mail in Woodlawn, was bitten two years ago. A man opened the door to get the letters, and his dog burst through.
"The dog was on me so quick," Randolph said. "I tripped over the bag and I fell, because I spun around. Once I was on the ground, I was at his mercy."
Dogs bite thousands of letter carriers nationwide each year, including dozens in Maryland.
Baltimore City ranked sixth in the nation during the 2013 fiscal year with 46 letter carriers bitten by dogs, according to Postal Service data. Across the Baltimore District, which encompasses all of the state except pockets in the Washington suburbs, 61 were bitten.
"It is difficult to parse the dog-bite factors by city or neighborhood; breeds, housing types, mailbox types, all may be factors," Postal Service spokeswoman Laura Dvorak wrote in an email. "It is really critical that the public be fully aware of the potential hazards posed by unrestrained dogs, or even restrained dogs that somehow manage a too-close encounter with service providers."
More than 5,500 postal workers were attacked by dogs in 2013, the Postal Service reported.
Letter carriers receive training when they are hired and at other times during their careers on preventing dog bites. The Postal Service says pet owners must help.
"There's a myth we often hear," said Linda DeCarlo, health and safety director for the postal service. "'Don't worry, my dog won't bite.'
"Dog attacks are a nationwide issue and not just a postal problem. Any dog can bite, and all attacks are preventable through responsible pet ownership."
A total of 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Small children, the elderly and postal workers are the most frequent victims, Dvorak said, citing statistics from the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Humane Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Randolph said the black German shepherd-Labrador mix left him with scratches and two small puncture wounds; he was grateful his winter jacket and heavy sweater prevented a more serious injury.
He said it was the first bite of his career. He was one of more than 5,800 postal workers attacked nationwide in 2012.
"Doing this job, you always anticipate it," the Pikesville resident said. "You don't expect it. But you have to prepare for it. For me, doing this long enough, you anticipate encounters with dogs. It's just an everyday occurrence for us."
Jennifer Brause, director of the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, said she thinks urban density is the biggest reason that bite rates are higher in Baltimore and other cities.
"More crowded conditions, a lot of smaller yards and postal workers walking along streets" are factors that put urban carriers at more risk, she said.
Brause said postal workers and pet owners bear responsibility for reducing attacks. She said some letter carriers have told her they carry treats but called it a bad idea.
"It sounds nice, but we don't recommend it," Brause said. "They could be accidentally training them to come running up to them with excitement."
Owners, she said, should understand that they might not be able to predict how their dog will react to a stranger.
"One common mistake people make is, they say, 'My animal is friendly,'" she said. "You can never 100 percent guarantee how your animal will act."
Kathy Voigt, a founder of the Chicago-based group Prevent The Bite, said nearly every dog-bite study concludes that education programs are key to stopping attacks.
"What we're trying to teach people is, when a mail carrier comes up, you need to keep a dog restrained," Voigt said "They think they are protecting their home and their owners."
Voigt says her daughter was injured by a dog in 1999, which led the family to work toward prevention. The nonprofit teams up each year with the postal service and other groups to raise awareness during National Dog Bite Prevention Week in May.
Voigt said dogs can be frightened by the uniforms, bags or hats that letter carriers wear. To dogs not used to seeing people in hats, "it can seem like they have two heads." And a backpack can be terrifying. "It could be like they are looking at an alien."
Prevent The Bite recommends that a trusted adult wear a backpack or hat around the house to help reduce the chance that a dog will be scared by a postal worker.
Neutering or spaying a dog also cuts the chance of it biting. Voigt said 70 percent of dog bites are from male dogs that have not been fixed.
Owners can take other steps, she said, such as not keeping a dog chained up, not playing games such as keep-away and not hitting it. All can make an animal aggressive.
"Responsible dog ownership is huge," she said. "A lot of owners don't really understand what their dogs are saying or doing. We see aggressive behavior in dogs, and say, 'Look how afraid he is.' A dog that's afraid is just as dangerous as a dog that's angry."
Dvorak said dog owners need to obey Maryland laws, which require dogs to be on a leash, restrained or responsive to voice command. If a dog makes a letter carrier feel unsafe, the Postal Service can ask the owner to pick up his or her mail at the post office until the worker is assured the dog will be restrained.
"The postal service places the safety of its employees as a top priority," she said.
Sixty attacks were recorded in the Baltimore District in fiscal year 2012, up from 44 in 2011.
Tim Dowdy, an official with the Mid-Atlantic region of the National Association of Letter Carriers, said the number of attacks in the Baltimore District is a concern. The union works with the postal service, local communities and animal-control authorities to combat attacks, he said.
The injuries range from minor to life-threatening, Dowdy said.
"There's no question that every letter carrier literally every day is exposed to significant risk when they go on the street to deliver the mail and perform their work," he said. "It is seen as a pretty noble professional service. They take it very seriously, to get the mail to every house and every day."
Preventing dog bites
The U.S. Postal Service asks dog owners to take precautions to prevent letter carriers from being bitten.
•Place dogs in a separate room behind a closed door when a mail carrier is making a delivery. Dogs sometimes break through screen doors or windows to attack.
•Tell children not to take mail directly from letter carriers when the family pet is nearby to prevent the dog from mistaking the exchange as a threat.
•Spay or neuter the animal, or pay it attention. Dogs that do not receive much attention or handling, especially those left tied up for long periods, frequently become biters.