Dog v postie is no joke – as I discovered on my day with the Royal Mail

The postal worker being chased by a snarling mutt is a comedy cliche, but it’s no joke for those at the sharp end: last year saw six dog attacks a day. Now posties have a new tool at their disposal

Rhik Samadder helps postal worker Charlie on his run in west London
 Easy does it: Rhik Samadder helps postal worker Charlie on his run in west London. Photograph: David Levene/Guardian

‘This one will bite the letters and head butt the door,” smiles Charlie, a postal worker I am shadowing on his rounds. He slides a catalogue halfway inside the letterbox of a green door, and it is instantly snatched by jaws unseen. I can tell by the sound that there is drool on the carpet. “Good boy!” I whisper through the door.

I am here to learn about the threat of dogs to postal staff, as part of Royal Mail’s annual drive to raise awareness. Yet not only is my blindly pro-dog prejudice part of the problem, I am too excited to learn anything. I have always been fascinated by the post, with its nostalgic link to national services – even after privatisation, the company has kept its government charter, the universal service obligation to deliver to 30m addresses for the same price.

More than that, though, I am fascinated by the business of being a cheeky postal worker. It is an alternative career I always wondered about. Now I am actually on a round, I can’t stop asking Charlie questions. What’s the most annoying thing to deliver? (The Harrods catalogue: too thick.) Does he ignore signs that say “No junk mail please”? (Yes: it’s not his job to decide what is junk mail or not.) What do his regulars say to him every day? (“One of them says: ‘Morning Postman Pat, where’s your black and white cat?”)

Such a wholesome life, I think, picturing myself with the red bag, the red top, the company trainers with a red stripe on the tongue.

On a nearby patch of grass, I see a handsome boxer, squatting. I beckon the good boy over and we fraternise. “That’s actually against the guidelines,” says Henry Perry, external relations manager for Royal Mail, who is also with us. In dog safety recommendations for staff, the company uses the acronym Avoid, in which the “A” stands for … well, avoid. (The others are Defend, Inform, Observe and Value Yourself, that latter of which sounds quite spiritual, but basically means don’t enter a garden with an unchained cockapoo in it.)

Meeting dogs is one of the top five reasons I like to imagine being a postal worker. Isn’t the eternal rivalry between pooch and postie cute? Somehow very British?

“This Dennis the Menace idea, that a dog hanging off the seat of your pants is an occupational hazard – I have a problem with that,” says Shaun Davis, global safety director at Royal Mail. “It’s like saying: ‘If you don’t want to get held up by a bank robber, don’t work in a bank.’”

It turns out that dog attacks are one of the top five threats to postal staff. Fingers and thumbs have been bitten off, even a nose. Injuries to calves, buttocks and testicles are common. In 2017, there were more than six attacks a day. It’s a country-wide problem: last year, Sheffield saw the highest number of incidents, this year it was Taunton. As Davis describes the life-changing injuries that mean some postal staff are unable to return to their routes, and require much mental health support afterwards, I realise that I have been naive.

“I don’t use postal pegs; they can’t take any weight,” says Charlie, dismissing the tongs staff are encouraged to use to deliver mail through letterboxes. Perry looks sad, because this is not a very on-message thing to say. (Thirteen per cent of dog attacks on postal staff are of the fingers-in-letterbox variety.)

Charlie is exactly what I like to imagine postal workers are like: an unnaturally fast mover, nipping over walls, earbuds hanging over one ear, trying to beat his personal best time for the round. Posties talk a bit like rappers: I ask Charlie where he is from, and he replies: “W7, but we’re in W12 now.” At just 20, he is one of the youngest in the game and, by his calculation, won’t see a good (ie easy) route until he is 40. He is also the least concerned person I have ever met. Inside a terrifying death-trap lift on an estate, he mildly observes that it often breaks down. He steps into the road the way Achilles stepped into battle. “If I waited, nothing would get delivered,” he says over his shoulder as a Ford Focus supplicates before him. Is he concerned about dog bites? He smiles, which I take to mean he is not.

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