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Homeowners insurance is going to the dogs

 Man's best friend may be your homeowners insurance policy's worst enemy.

Some insurance companies are refusing to write or renew policies for homeowners who own certain breeds of dog. Dog owners are calling it a case of canine profiling.

Dog lovers say the uninsurable breed system isn't fair or scientific since any dog can be aggressive and bite. In fact, dog owners argue, many breeds on the outlaw list are as kind, gentle and no more apt to bite than your average dog. A handful of insurers agree that it's difficult to make blanket judgments about breeds, but they ask dog owners to pay more or cancel policies for homeowners who have dogs with a history of biting.

Insurance companies say they're only trying to reduce costs and are only eliminating coverage for breeds known to have high bite rates. Several high-profile dog mauling cases, such as the fatal attack on a San Francisco woman by two Presa Canarios in 2001, have increased safety -- and insurance -- concerns.

Most of the breeds that concern the insurance industry are large canines that can inflict a lot of damage. About 25 breeds of dogs were involved in 238 fatal dog bites, according to a 20-year study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published in 2000. According to the report, pit bulls and Rottweilers were involved in more than half of fatalities resulting from dog bites. Those two breeds have joined several others on the industry's "bad dog" list.

Money motivation
Most consumer advocates (and some insurance industry observers) believe that money is at the root of the price hikes and coverage limits. Insurance companies are cracking down as they face rising costs.

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"The cost of dog liability for insurance companies has been rising steadily for 10 years," says Alejandra Soto, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group based in New York City. "It hasn't risen dramatically, but it is continuing to rise and insurers view it as a problem."

The Insurance Information Institute estimates that the industry paid out $310 million in 2001 dog bite liability claims, compared to $250 million in 1996. Combine that rise with the overall increase in costly claims and lawsuits for everything from toxic mold to natural disasters, and insurance companies are looking for ways to cut costs or boost revenue.

Blacklisting breeds
Insurance carriers see two ways to solve the canine conundrum.

The first is to refuse coverage for certain breeds. The Columbus, Ohio-based Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company's criteria is typical. The company compiled its list of breeds to ban based on frequency of dog bites, the reputation of the breed, the insurance company's own research and information from the CDC. Nationwide has deemed Rottweilers, Dobermans, pit bulls, Presa Canarios, Chows and wolf hybrids ineligible for homeowners coverage. In these cases, the homeowner can get a Nationwide policy, but the insurer (and others with similar guidelines) simply will not pay any claims related to the listed dogs.

"Nationwide appreciates that an individual dog may not be representative of an entire breed," says the company's dog breed policy statement. "However, we find it necessary to apply our standards consistently as it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to determine the true disposition of any individual dog."

Dog owners, through their elected offiicals, are fighting back. Pennsylvania has passed a statute barring "breed discrimination" by insurers. Similar legislation is pending in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New York..

An owner who is confident that his dog isn't dangerous could opt for coverage from a company that blacklists breeds and take his chances that he's right about the pup's temperament. Most insurance agents, however, don't recommend this approach.

Case-by-case coverage
The second way insurers have found to limit dog-related losses is to individually consider policies. These insurers say they haven't reviewed their dog coverage rules and have no plans to exclude certain breeds.

"We haven't done any specific review of our underwriting and we don't discriminate by breed," says Phil Supple, a spokesman for State Farm Insurance in Bloomington, Ill.

"We look at every home that has a dog on a case-by-case basis. If we think the dog is a problem, we'll write an endorsement that excludes the dog from the homeowners policy."

Keeping Fido and your coverage
The best defense against rising rates or an outright cancellation of your homeowners policy is to have your dog properly trained, says Kevin Craiglow, a spokesman of the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America, based in Alexandria, Va. Craiglow urges owners to get documentation for their pet's training.

In addition to a good-dog diploma, you can take a bite out of your insurance costs by neutering or spaying your pet. This often can minimize behavioral problems. Securing your pet on your premises also reduces problems.

If these moves won't budge your insurer, Craiglow suggests you seek an independent insurance agent who represents several companies. He or she may be able to find a more accommodating home insurer.

When all else fails, you may be able to get your main home insurance from one company and add dog liability coverage, at additional cost, from a firm that specializes in that type of insurance, Craiglow says. Check with your current agent for recommendations on this last-resort insurance option.

"It's very specialized insurance and can be expensive, " says Craiglow. "But it is available."

Jenny C. McCune is a contributing editor based in Montana.

-- Posted: Sept. 23, 2003

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