Good dogs, bad dogs and homeowners policies
With dog-bite claims on the rise, some insurers are canceling policies for homeowners whose pets are at fault. Here's what you need to know about risk and prevention.
About 40% of American households own a dog, according to The Humane Society of the United States. And many of those dog owners have homeowners insurance, too. But the two don't always mix well. As the costs of dog bites spiral -- more than $310 million in 2001, according to the Insurance Information Institute -- some insurance companies are refusing to write coverage for owners of certain breeds.
While there may not be an industrywide "blacklist" of breeds, it's probably best to check with your agent before you buy a German shepherd, a pit bull or a Rottweiler. A number of other insurers do not maintain a blacklist of breeds, believing that each case has to be considered individually.
One of the reasons some companies deny that they look at dog breeds is because state regulations prohibit them from doing so in certain parts of the country.
Some companies don't discriminate by breed. "We believe that there are good dogs and bad dogs within every breed, just as we believe that there are responsible and irresponsible owners," says Phil Supple of State Farm, the nation's largest home insurer.
Dan Hattaway, an underwriting consultant for State Farm, says that the company doesn't even track how many of its home insurance policyholders own dogs. Policyholders do have to answer questions about dogs on the application, however. Specifically, the company wants to know if a dog has ever bitten anyone or if it has been trained for attack purposes.
If it turns out that the dog has bitten someone, State Farm will want to know the circumstances surrounding the bite. "We'll want to ascertain if it's ever likely to happen again -- if precautions have been taken to prevent it," says Hattaway. Other factors the company looks at are the seriousness of the injury and whether the attack was provoked or unprovoked.
Dogs with a history of attacks
Hattaway gives this example. An Irish setter gives birth to a litter of puppies. She and the puppies are on the back porch. Some friends come over with their little boy to look at the puppies. Under the supervision of the insured, everything is fine. Everyone goes inside, and parents tell the boy that it is time to leave the dog alone with her puppies.
"Well, the adults got to talking about adult things, and the little boy, unnoticed, decides he's going to go out and pet the puppies. He got bit," says Hattaway. "When State Farm followed up on the claim, we found that the insured had had the female spayed. She wasn't going to have any more puppies, and she showed no further aggressive tendencies." Because the dog's owner had taken steps to make sure that a similar incident would not occur, State Farm continued his coverage.
Some will ask "Do you own a vicious dog?" on home insurance applications and any previous dog-bite claims will show up on your claims history, which insurers check before issuing a policy. Like State Farm, some insurers will consider whether an attack was provoked or unprovoked.
Insurers are most concerned about unprovoked dog attacks. If your dog has an unprovoked attack in its history, most insurers will cancel or not renew an existing home insurance policy, decline your application for a new one, or attach an exclusion for the dog to the policy. The exclusion means that the insurance policy would not cover any liability claims caused by the dog, making you personally responsible for any medical bills or lawsuits stemming from your dog's actions.
Raleigh Floyd, a spokesperson for Allstate, acknowledges that his company pays attention to breeds. "It's not a blacklist," he says. "But we have breeds that we follow more closely than others, mostly because of a variety of trends and statistics about dog bites." On the list are Rottweilers, pit bulls, chows, bull terriers, Dobermans, and German shepherds.
He notes that owning one of these breeds does not mean an immediate rejection from Allstate. Keeping the dog chained and putting up a six-foot-high fence in your yard will definitely work in a dog owner's favor. "We also look at other factors having to do with homeowners insurance not related to the dog," says Floyd. Those factors include claims history and the condition of the home.
Prevention is the best medicine
The best way to make sure your home insurance won't get canceled because of your dog is to make sure it won't bite anyone. Hattaway of State Farm outlines the ways to make sure a dog won't bite the hand that pets it: "Socialize the pet with people and other animals outside the household," he says. Training it to obey your commands -- whether on your own or with the help of obedience school -- will also lessen the chance that it will strike out on its own. Keep your dog healthy; if your dog is in pain, it's more likely to lash out. Obey leash laws, even on your own property.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the majority of dog-related fatalities involved unrestrained dogs, both on and off an owner's property. Spaying and neutering an animal can also improve its disposition, especially with male dogs. Don't put your dog in situations where it will be threatened or teased. Hattaway notes that 60% of dog-bite victims are children, who may not be aware that their behavior is threatening. "Most importantly, be alert to signs that your dog is having a problem," says Hattaway. If your dog is agitated or appears threatened, take the necessary steps to calm it down.
What to do if someone is bitten
If your dog does bite someone, make sure you respond right away. Restrain or confine your dog immediately. Then do whatever you can to help the victim, whether that means calling 911 or driving them to the emergency room. If your dog hasn't had its rabies shot, it's especially important for you to cooperate.
Once the victim is taken care of, you may have to contact the local authorities to report the dog bite. You should then call your homeowners insurance company especially if there are medical costs involved. Be sure to cooperate with your insurance company. No doubt, the adjuster will want to investigate the circumstances surrounding the incident. You may or may not agree with the insurance company's opinion of your dog's disposition, but they won't be able to make a decision until they have all the facts.
Take steps to make sure that a similar incident doesn't happen. Short of finding another home for your dog, that might mean building a fence around your yard or sending him to obedience school. When all else fails, a certified animal trainer might help.