Randolph Kowal has delivered mail in the Buffalo area for 17 years, but he hasn't been the same since he was attacked by a dog that charged from a rear yard, broke through a gate and clamped its teeth around Kowal's left wrist.
"It had half my watch in its mouth which is why I only had punctures," recalled Kowal, who now delivers express mail from a mail truck. "The dog basically tackled me. My shoulder hit the ground hard, but with my free hand I reached for my pepper spray and shot it in the face."
Kowal, who was bit 3 1/2 years ago, may never return to carrying mailbags. After two surgeries on his shoulder, he still cannot raise his arm more than halfway -- and he can't grip a railing, he said.
Last year 6,755 U.S. Postal Service workers were attacked by dogs while delivering mail, including 82 incidents in a Western New York region that stretches east of Rochester, according to statistics released Friday by the USPS.
Buffalo had 28 dog attacks on mailmen, the 25th highest number of any city in the country. Los Angeles, which had 80 such incidents, ranked No. 1.
Dog attacks are one of the leading causes of injuries to mail carriers, said Anthony Vilardo, of West Seneca. Vilardo co-chairs the Joint Safety & Health Committee of the National Association of Postal Carriers in the WNY region.
"You can't really outmaneuver a dog," said Vilardo. "You're basically trying to get in a position of safety -- either outside a fence or a door without ever taking yours eyes off the dog. Running triggers a prey-or-chase mentality in the dog. We don't want you to run."
A carrier's first line of defense in his mail satchel, said Vilardo. The satchel is followed by pepper spray that is made from vegetable oil and cayenne pepper.
"If a dog does charge at you, give him a target, your satchel," said Vilardo, who reported four close encounters with dogs but no bites. "The pepper spray has a range of 10 feet. It contains an orange dye which marks the dog's face for easier identification."
Ricky Perez didn't get a chance to use his pepper spray when he was charged by a Chow named Peaches on Minnesota Avenue. Perez, who has 15 years with the postal service was filling in for another carrier when he encountered Peaches.
It was January, and Perez was grateful he dressed in layers when he broke the golden rule of dog encounters.
" I'm on my back and it's coming at me," said Perez, 40. "I'm kicking it, and I rolled over to run when he bit me in the calf. That's when I threw my mail bag."
To help carriers who are working in unfamiliar territory, the postal service uses bright orange index cards to identify addresses where dogs live, said Vilardo.
"We have orange cards sorted in daily with the delivery mail," Vilardo said. "The first thing you do is sort your orange dog-warning cards and any other hazard cards such as broken steps or uneven sidewalks."
The USPS also requires owners to keep their dogs restrained or indoors during delivery hours, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., said Vilardo.
Because dogs are protective of the owners and their territory, Vilardo warned that even if the dog is not believed to be aggressive, a carrier may be viewed as an intruder. "We instruct carriers not to hand mail directly to owners because dogs may interpret that as an aggressive action," said Vilardo.
If there is a threat of a dog at a residence, the carrier will stop delivering mail to that address and bring it back to the post office.
Both Kowal and Perez have approached their jobs differently after their respective attacks.
Kowal joined the safety committee responsible for educating carriers on ways to avoid injuries on the job. The service area he is responsible for is in the neighborhood of East Utica Street and Humboldt Parkway, where his injury occurred.
Perez has vowed to make an orange card for all dogs, no matter what the breed, size or temperament.
"Peaches! There was nothing sweet about that thing," said Perez. "That's why I mark every dog."