When mail carrier Carl Cantrell delivers mail on Hewitt Street in San Fernando, the neighborhood dogs fall into battle formation.
A miniature collie and a German shepherd deploy on the sidewalk and eye Cantrell suspiciously as he passes. A Boston terrier commands the rear. Two mixed-breed canines bark furiously behind a chain-link fence.
"I look at dogs this way: This is their territory, and I'm invading it," said the 54-year-old Cantrell, whose right calf was "ripped open" in an attack by two Doberman pinschers 13 years ago. "When I see them out, and that fence open, I don't even head down here. I go back the other way."
It is a war of almost mythic proportions: mailman versus dog.
Despite a national decrease in the number of canine attacks on mailmen, San Fernando Valley mail carriers were bitten by dogs 74 times in the year that ended in September, said John Conte, a spokesman for the Postal Service's Van Nuys division. That's just two fewer than the year earlier.
The mail carriers say they're also nipped by the Postal Service. It prohibits them from using weapons stronger than a pepper-based aerosol spray, and they say they often find themselves fighting off attackers with their letter satchels.
Late last month, Pacoima postman Floyd Sterling--a nine-year veteran of the Postal Service--was accused of resorting to something more lethal.
As he walked his route in Arleta, authorities say, Sterling carried a .22-caliber pistol; faced with a German shepherd mixed breed, he shot it.
Sterling said the dog, named Skippy, had bitten him previously, a charge denied by the owner, Tammie Brody. He faces arraignment Jan. 23 on charges of cruelty to animals, carrying a concealed weapon and discharging a firearm with gross negligence.
John Tween, 42, a neighbor who heard shots fired, said Sterling indicated that he was fed up with the dog. Passing Tween's home to deliver mail after the shooting, Sterling told him, "That's the third time today. I'm tired of it. I just shot the dog," Tween said.
Mail carriers said they were stunned by the shooting but felt the carrier's reaction, though extreme, was understandable.
"The carriers I've talked to can understand how a dog like that can charge and put you on a defensive, vulnerable position," said John Gaunce, a local union president of the National Assn. of Letter Carriers. "We don't encourage carrying a gun. But we have quite a few carriers who did everything they could do and still got bit."
In what some carriers think is a case of adding insult to injury, the Postal Service disciplines carriers who report dog attacks, Gaunce said.
New and part-time carriers, often the least experienced at defending themselves against animal attacks, are on probation for 90 days and can be fired if they have a run-in with a dog.
Clive Winston had been on the job only two months when a large dog bit his wrist, the 34-year-old carrier said. Three days later he was fired.
"They said I'd been recently bitten in a situation that could have been prevented," Winston said.
Barry Seltzer, station manager at the Encino post office where Winston worked, confirmed the attack contributed to Winston's dismissal. He noted that a probationary worker in another line of work might be dropped for having an on-the-job accident.
"In some offices, it's unwritten law that if you get bit by a dog, you're terminated," said Dan Gorman, another local official of the letter carriers union. "If they're tolerant, sometimes they overlook this as an accident."
All carriers, new and old, face disciplinary action if they're involved in an injury that the Postal Service believes could have been prevented.
That policy is supposed to prevent "injuries and lost time," said Conte, the Van Nuys postal official. "Hopefully it makes them aware of being careful."
Gaunce said San Fernando Valley mail carriers have it rougher than most. Within the Valley, "the Pacoima-Arleta area is particularly bad for loose dogs," he said.
Mail carriers in Pacoima were attacked five times by dogs last year, four times in 1988.
"You just see a lot of dogs running loose here," said Leon Washington, postmaster for the Pacoima office where Sterling worked. Complaints of free-running canines in the East Valley outnumber those from West Valley more than 2 to 1.
Others stand guard at homes whose owners have also installed window bars and fences.
Some carriers complain that the spray repellent is useless. "Most of the time it flies in our face or it gets the dog even madder," one said.
Nationally, there were 2,781 dog-related injuries involving carriers in 1988, down about 17% from the previous year, said Lou Eberhardt, a Postal Service spokesman in Washington. Animal attacks on mail carriers have decreased substantially since 1982, when they hit a high of about 7,000.
One death has been attributed to a dog bite, postal officials said. A San Bernardino postal carrier, Sheldon Smith, 47, was bitten by a pit bull on Dec. 17, 1981, and died four days later of blood poisoning.