Zoraida Cook parks her U.S. Postal Service truck on a Portland side street. She dons her navy-blue bucket hat, large sunglasses and purple sleeves to shield her from the day’s sun. She packs her cross-body bag with envelopes and small packages addressed to the residents of nearby homes.

Before she sets out to deliver the day’s mail, she checks one last thing: the red-and-white spray bottle hooked on the corner of her bag.

“Back Off,” the bottle reads. “Dog Repellent.”

Cook is a dog lover. She has an 8-year-old Airedale terrier named Shag. But in nearly 14 years as a mail carrier, she has been bitten more times than she can remember, including one attack so bad she changed her route to avoid that dog.

“I hear that dog bark,” Cook said. “I just tighten up.”

The age-old enmity between Fido and the mail carrier isn’t just the stuff of cartoons. In 2016, the number of postal employees attacked by dogs across the country was 6,755. That was up 206 from the previous year and was the highest in three decades, according to the Associated Press. That increase could be tied to the growth of online sales and home deliveries.

Los Angeles led the list last year with 80 dog attacks. Houston followed with 62, then Cleveland with 60. Portland didn’t make the top 30, but the postal service reported that mail carriers in the city have been bitten 12 times in the past year and a half.

So on a sunny Wednesday, Cook makes sure her dog repellent is secure before she sets out on a walking route through Riverton. Cook is originally from the Philippines. When she got married and moved to the United States in the late 1990s, she was impressed by the American postal service. In her home country, she said residents did not count on letters or packages to be delivered on time.

“Sometimes, you’ll see your mail,” Cook said, laughing as she remembered. “Most of the time, no.”

She applied for a job as a Portland mail carrier in 2004. She still remembers the day a small dog lunged at her while she worked.

“The dog just snapped and grabbed my calf,” she said of that first attack. “He ripped my pants but didn’t go through skin.”

She hasn’t always been so lucky, however. Four years ago, a large dog bit her legs so badly she missed two days of work. Scared to return to that house, Cook asked to change her route.

A dog barks at the end of its leash as Zoraida Cook, a postal carrier who has been bitten by dogs, makes her rounds. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Typically, in the event of a dog attack, the postal service will send a letter to the owners alerting them to the incident and advising them on how to avoid it in the future. Carriers also use orange cards to keep records of aggressive dogs, and they sometimes mark homes that have pets with green paw-print stickers.

She understands dogs are usually just trying to protect their homes and families.

“We go to the house every day, and they see us, but they are not sure what we are doing,” Cook said with a shrug.

She also understands how to protect herself.

Cook reads those orange warning cards carefully when she walks unfamiliar routes. She wears tall socks even on warm days to provide a thin protection against a dog bite. She is always ready to shift her mail bag on her body to absorb an attack. She shakes her keys when she walks into a big yard, so the noise will alert a dog cooling off in the bushes to her presence. She likes when residents introduce their dogs to her, so they can learn her scent. She has learned to stand perfectly still when an aggressive dog approaches her, fighting her instinct to run while the pet circles and calms down.

The route she is walking Wednesday is mostly family homes with yards – and more than a dozen dogs.

Mail carrier Zoraida Cook approaches a home with a posted warning. On another street, a mailbox was moved to the end of a driveway because the homeowner’s dog sunk its teeth into a carrier. Postal carriers in Portland have been bitten 12 times in the past year and a half. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

A high-pitched yipping greets Cook as she opens the mailbox at her first house, but the source is too small to be visible in the window. A shaggy mutt spots Cook from an upstairs window in the house across the street, and the barking travels downstairs as the dog races to the front door. Around the corner, a small wooden sign on a fence reads “Be Aware Of The Dog” in neat white letters, but the yard is empty. On another street, Cook points out where a mailbox was moved to the end of a driveway because the homeowner’s dog sunk its teeth into a mail carrier.

Cook walks her route at a brisk pace, dropping fliers and bills in mailboxes, saying hello to homeowners and passers-by. The petite woman stands just a couple of inches over 5 feet tall, so a big dog can easily jump and rest its paws on her shoulders. She gestures toward another street where a German shepherd once lept a fence to run to her.

Despite the charging canines, Cook loves her job.

“I love working,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s raining, hot or snowing. It could be storming. I am still working.”

Cook returns to her truck for another batch of envelopes. She consults an orange card about a brown pug, but it doesn’t emerge when Cook makes her delivery. At one house, a fluffy white dog is tied to a tree while the owner gardens. The pup barks frantically and strains at its leash, but Cook ignores it. She doesn’t approach or pet dogs unless the owner has given her permission to do so.

It is early afternoon when Cook reaches an unpaved road. She scans the yards and starts with the house on the right. A caramel-colored dog in the driveway perks its ears as she approaches. It is on a leash, but she gives it a wide berth on her way to the mailbox. Its eyes follow her as she crosses the street, but her gaze is already trained on the next house.

The muscular brown-and-white dog is already waiting for her.

Cook remembers this dog without needing to look at the orange warning card. It always sits by the window next to the mailbox and strains at the screen when she approaches.

“Like it’s gonna fly,” Cook says.

Her shoulders are square as she walks up the path.

The dog widens its eyes and pushes its nose toward her.

Cook never takes her eyes off its snout. She gingerly drops the mail in the black box.

Suddenly, the dog lets out a howl and pushes against the window screen. But Cook is already gone, stepping deftly down the path, on to the next house.

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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