Your home insurance company may think Fido is too ferocious.
Homeowner’s insurance and renter's insurance policies typically cover your liability if your dog bites or attacks someone at your home or apartment. Most standard policies provide $100,000 to $300,000 in coverage.
These standard policies cover most dogs. However, your pooch's breed may be blacklisted by some home insurers. Many insurers classify Akitas, Alaskan Malamutes, Presa Canarios, Chow Chows, Doberman Pinschers, German Shepherds, Pit Bull Terriers, Rottweilers and Siberian Huskies as potentially dangerous.
In general, an owner is responsible for any damage done by his dog, whether the dog is provoked or not. That's where liability coverage on a homeowner's insurance or renter's insurance policy kicks in.
Dog bite claims add up
Each year, almost 5 million Americans are bitten or attacked by dogs. According to the Insurance Information Institute, dog bites accounted for more than one-third of all homeowner's insurance liability claims paid in 2010, totaling $412 million; the average claim was $26,166. Dog bites are the No. 5 reason for visits to the emergency room, and more than half of these bites occur on the dog owner’s property.
Given those statistics, it should come as no surprise that homeowner's and renter's insurance companies are as vigilant about dog bite claims as a watchdog that's guarding a house.
Simply put, a dog bite easily can result in a homeowner filing an insurance claim, according to independent agent Kevin P. Foley of PFT&K Insurance Brokers in Milltown, N.J. Even if it’s a minor bite -- the dog nipped a visitor who tried to shoo away the pooch -- the insurance company is obligated to defend the homeowner if he's sued over the bite.
"Lawsuits result in legal expenses that insurance companies want to avoid," Foley says.
Insurers get 'aggressive'
Foley says one of the home insurers he works with won't extend coverage to a homeowner who owns a breed of dog that it classifies as "aggressive," such as a pit bull. That information is spelled out in the insurer's underwriting guidelines.
"This insurance company will cancel coverage at the renewal date if you acquire an aggressive breed of dog and they find out. I recently lost a client because they got a Doberman," Foley says.
With another home insurer that Foley represents, a prospective customer will be asked whether he has a dog. If that customer discloses that he has a dog, he'll be asked whether the dog ever has acted aggressively or has ever bitten someone -- no matter what the breed is. "If the answer is yes, they will decline the application. If the answer is no, the application is acceptable," Foley says.
Deborah Becker, an agent for State Farm in Eau Claire, Wis., says she gains a lot of clients from other insurers because State Farm does not refuse coverage based on a dog’s breed. The exception is Ohio, which has determined that the pit bull meets the definition of a "vicious dog." State Farm doesn't provide home insurance coverage for owners of pit bulls in Ohio.
State Farm says it paid more than $90 million as a result of the nearly 3,500 dog bite claims it handled in 2010. California topped State Farm's list of states with the most dog bites -- 369, with a total payout of $11.3 million.
An alternative: Pet liability insurance
Pet owners who don't qualify for dog bite coverage under traditional home insurance policies can seek liability insurance, which is available from specialty insurers. Pet liability insurance covers the cost of damage, injury or death caused by a pet.
If you don't qualify for traditional homeowner’s insurance because of your dog’s breed, obtaining pet liability insurance is vital, as most states will hold the dog owner liable for expenses associated with injuries or property damage caused by a dog (with the exception of trespassers).
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia require owners of dogs that have been labeled dangerous or vicious (or, in some cases, potentially dangerous) to buy pet liability insurance. The 14 states are Delaware, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington.
Pet liability insurance normally costs $450 to $2,500 a year.
Is your dog a 'Good Citizen'?
A dog owner may be able to get some reprieve if his dog has earned a "Canine Good Citizen" certificate. A number of home insurance agents recognize this certificate.
“I have been approached by a couple of insurance agents whose companies are not issuing homeowners policies to owners of certain breeds,” says Chris Hamer, a certified dog behavior counselor and a Canine Good Citizen evaluator. “The only good news in all of this is that the agents that I talked with said they will issue policies if the dog has earned its Canine Good Citizen certification.”
Canine Good Citizen programs are run by the American Kennel Club. Other dog training programs may fit the bill as well. Check with your insurance company or insurance agent to find out whether this type of training can help you obtain home insurance coverage.