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'Dog profiling': One community mandates insurance for owners of certain breeds

To some people, pit bulls, Rottweilers and German Shepherds conjure up fear. Others see these dogs as part of the family. The two groups are at odds with one another — so much so that in at one community, government officials are requiring owners of certain breeds to maintain a certain amount of homeowner's or renter's insurance.

Pros and cons in New Mexico

The New Mexico resort town of Elephant Butte made headlines after the City Council required owners of pit bulls, Rottweilers and German Shepherds to register those dogs and to prove they carry at least $100,000 worth of liability coverage on their homes or apartments.

Alan Briley, city manager of Elephant Butte, cites statistics from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicating that these are the top three breeds "that are more likely to attack people."

pit_bull"I know our council wanted to be proactive and make sure that if something like this happens, our public is protected," Briley says.

Chasity Cervantes, a resident of Elephant Butte and an owner of three pit bulls, says she called every insurance company from Elephant Butte to El Paso in search of coverage. Cervantes said recently that finding affordable insurance had been so difficult that she feared she'd either have to move out of Elephant Butte or euthanize her dogs. She did find one company that might cover her dogs, but she says the cost would have more than doubled what she'd been paying for home insurance.

The ABC's of coverage for dog owners

Home and renter's insurance policies typically cover dog-bite liability, says Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute. Most standard policies provide $100,000 to $300,000 in liability coverage. If the claim exceeds those limits, the dog owner is personally responsible for damages above that amount, including legal expenses.

Liability insurance also provides no-fault medical coverage if a dog bites a friend or neighbor. This enables the dog-bite victim to submit medical bills directly to the homeowner’s or renter's insurance company. Homeowners and renters generally can get $1,000 to $5,000 worth of this coverage.

"Most dogs are friendly, loving members of the family, but even normally docile dogs may bite when they are frightened or when protecting their puppies, owners or food," Worters says. "Ultimately, the responsibility for properly training and controlling a dog rests with the owner."

Most insurance companies will cover homeowners or renters who have dogs, according to Worters. However, once a dog has bitten someone, an insurer may bump up your premium or exclude the dog from coverage. Some companies require dog owners to sign liability waivers for dog bites. Others will cover a dog only if the owner takes the pet to behavior-modification classes.

Furthermore, some companies may charge higher rates for certain breeds because they've experienced big claim losses from those breeds, Worters says. Others may not insure certain breeds at all and will write a homeowner's or renter's policy only if a certain dog is excluded.

"The reason, of course, is lawsuits," Worters says. "A single lawsuit -- even if won by the dog owner who is being sued -- can end up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, which the insurer would pay."

Is this a trend?

Worters says she hasn't detected a trend of communities like Elephant Butte requiring homeowners of pit bulls and other breeds to carry a certain amount of liability insurance.In the case of Elephant Butte, she says, it appears town officials "don’t want to shoulder the liability if someone tries to sue" government officials.

Pit bull advocates believe some public officials are profiling and discriminating against certain dog breeds. A handful of pit bull owners interviewed for this story said they hadn't registered their dogs in their towns because of the insurance issue. Some of the pit bull owners say they haven’t disclosed their dogs' breed to their home insurance agents for fear of their rates going up.

Ledy Vankavage, senior attorney for Best Friends Animal Society, the country’s largest sanctuary for abused and abandoned animals, owns three pit bulls that are rescue dogs. She has no problem with insurance companies raising rates on homeowners or renters who own dogs that have histories of biting. “However, these homeowner's insurance policies and dog-specific ordinances profile an entire breed — not a specific dog,” she says.

According to Vankavage, 12 states ban dog profiling: California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia.

Ohio is the most recent state to join that crowd. That’s welcome news for Julie Lyle, chief dog warden of Lucas County, Ohio. “Now, all dogs will be treated equally based on their behavior and not how they look,” she says.

The agents' viewpoint

Paul Johnson, vice president of Brooks Insurance in Ohio, views it differently. “Insurance companies are going to continue to look at it from a breed standpoint rather than an individual-dog standpoint,” he says.

Dori Einhorn, owner of Einhorn Insurance in California, often receives calls from tearful homeowners who are worried that they'll have to relocate to another community or euthanize their dogs when towns impose the type of legislation that passed in Ohio.

“I have a Pit Bull Terrier, and so do the agents that work in my office,” Einhorn says. “We are passionate about the breed … . We work with well-known insurance companies and get fair rates for people with breed-specific dogs. People shouldn’t have to pay more because of a specific breed. Many towns and insurance agents don’t know these dogs that they are discriminating against. Each one is different from the next.”

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