Delivering mail in the dog attack hotbed of Houston

Delivering mail is no easy feat, and especially not in Houston. Postal workers must brave the scorching summer heat, build relationships with residents, and be prepared to ward off dogs in the event of an attack.

Why Houston?

Xandria James-Ward, the Houston District safety manager with the United States Postal Service, said when she tried to drill down on a root cause it was all over the place.

“Our concerns in the Houston area were with loose dogs and unrestrained dogs,” she said.

“What we have now is homeowners. They just handle their dogs more casually. The dogs are always out walking unleashed.” 

PACK OF STRAYS: Family mourns the loss of wife, mother killed in dog attack. 

Kanickewa “ Nikki” Johnson, a former carrier and the spokesperson for USPS Houston, said homeowners with pets usually say “oh my dog won’t bite, my dog won’t do this, my dog is friendly.”

“But at the same time the dog is territorial,” she said. “And we come impeding on their territory so their natural instinct is to become defensive and protect their home.”

Letter carriers are severely injured and hospitalized at least once a month in Houston, according to James-Ward. 

She said the injuries typically occur in Houston’s “hotspots” on each side of town. The USPS has noticed the biggest increase in activity inside the Loop  — by almost 200 percent over the last two years. Southeast Houston and the inner Loop, she said, is where carriers typically have to walk door to door.

‘All I could do was smack it a good one’

That’s the case for veteran carrier Roland “Bucky” Hernandez, 67, who has walked the same route in Eastwood for 10 years. 

“By being out here on this route so long, you get to know the dogs, which are the friendly ones and which are the bad ones.” 

But you have to exert the same level of caution even when you know the dogs, Hernandez said.

“The best thing is to keep your ears and eyes open. Don’t show fear of the dog. If he senses your fear, he’s going to come at you more.”

But even with vigilance, safety training and his fearless approach, Hernandez still had a few run-ins. 

Two of them were minor with smaller dogs he calls “anklebiters.”

“He caught a piece of me; just a nibble.”

But in 2019 he caught more than “just a nibble.” A bite from a pitbull landed him in the hospital with nearly 10 stitches. 

In 2019, Roland Hernandez had to get 10 stitches on his right hand after he was bit by a pitbull delivering mail to a Eastwood home on E Avenue K.

Courtesy of Roland Hernandez

Hernandez recounted the incident Wednesday morning and showed the Chronicle where it happened, along East Avenue K.

He said he knew the dogs were there, but the gate was wide open and he didn’t see anything at first.

“I turned to get the mail, and as I’m stepping out all of a sudden there was the dog,” Hernandez said as he imitated the dog’s growl.

“He was kind of lurching. All I could do was smack it a good one, stepped back and got in my truck. I honked the horn and the customer never came out. I thought it was just a scratch at first so I wiped it off with a napkin I had.”

Then he realized it was more than a scratch, so he wrapped his hand in a towel and went back to the station. 

He was out of work for nearly four months. 

When he returned to work, the support from his customers poured in. 

“A lot of people were like ‘you alright buddy how’s your hand? Let me see your hand. Is everything okay? Is there anything we can get you?'” he said. 

“That’s how they are though.”

Along his route, residents waved at Hernandez as he passed by. There were at least 20 dogs just on just one half of East Avenue K. Some attached to a chain, some behind high iron fences, some barking through short metal fences, and some loose and wandering down the narrow streets. All barking as Hernandez delivered his mail.

“You get used to hearing the dogs bark,” he said.

And over time, Hernandez has also gotten used to certain dogs’ tendencies. 

As we approached a corner lot with a short and deteriorating fence, Hernandez said “I have to be careful because the German shepherd will jump up and try to get me at the mailbox and the black one will try to come underneath the fence.”

He approaches residents about their dogs’ bad habits and educates them on best practices to avoid an incident.

“You’ve got to get something on that mailbox to keep that German shepherd away,” he said to the owner who came to pull his dog back before Hernandez approached the property.  

Roland “Bucky” Hernandez, 67, poses in front of his USPS truck on June 16 with his satchel and dog spray ready before starting his walking route in Eastwood. 

Laura Duclos / Houston Chronicle

“Yeah I’m trying to get a new fence,” the resident replied.

Open dialogue between carriers and residents is part of the safety training that carriers receive, James-Ward said.  

“We try to tell carriers to communicate with residents about their dogs,” she said, “and we have demonstrations on how to ward off a dog.”

In addition, the department ensures every carrier has dog spray, which is not meant to injure or disable an animal, she said, but rather stop a dog in its tracks to give a carrier time to exit safely. 

In the event of an incident, USPS Houston partners with the BARC animal shelter to help to retrieve unrestrained and hazardous animals.

“If we’re out and we get reports that there are packs of unrestrained animals we call BARC immediately,” James-Ward said. “If they find them they go out and collect them. If we have serious dog bites, they report to the scene, talk to talk the homeowner and check for vaccinations records.”

USPS launched an official safety campaign, “Be Aware: Any Dog Can Bite,” just in time for National Dog Bite Awareness Week, which began on June 12 and ends June 18 and aims to raise awareness about dog bite prevention. 

Put simply, James-Ward says:

“If you’re a pet owner, keep them secured. Put them away from the door in another room before they come to the door to retrieve a package, or put them on a leash and keep them inside or behind a fence if no one’s home.”

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