By Arthur Murray
You love your dog, but your home insurance carrier doesn’t. Even though your dog has never bitten anyone, your provider considers it aggressive, simply on the basis of its breed. The result: You could be denied a policy for you home or be charged much higher premiums.
Some carriers will cover the house for fire, wind and other specified damage but exclude any claim related to the dog. Sound unfair? A lot of people believe so, including the American Kennel Club. The organization insists that coverage decisions should be made according to a dog’s deeds rather than its breed.
The “aggressive” designation can differ among insurance providers, but it generally is applied to the following breeds:
- German shepherd
- Great Dane
- Siberian husky
- Wolf hybrid
- Doberman pinscher
- Pit bull
- Staffordshire terrier
What’s a dog owner to do?
The good news for you is that providers aren’t unified in their approach. If your carrier balks at covering your dog or threatens higher premiums, get quotes from several other providers. Each company treats dogs differently — some have no restrictions on the breed of animal. You may receive more favorable terms simply by talking to multiple insurance carriers.
Your homeowners insurance typically includes liability coverage, which is the portion of your policy that protects you in the event of a lawsuit. Owners of any breed of dog should be sure to have sufficient liability coverage just in case of a dog-related lawsuit. When you’re shopping for your policy, remember that your homeowners policy is only responsible for liability damages up to your coverage limit. Standard policies typically start coverage at $100,000, though the limit can be raised to $300,000 or $500,000 for a relatively low fee.
Dog owners may also want to consider an umbrella policy. This adds additional liability coverage above what comes with your homeowners or automobile policy. It will raise your limit to $1 million or more. Some home insurance providers may require you to carry an umbrella policy if your dog happens to be an “aggressive” breed or has a bite-history.
If you do wind up with higher premiums because of your dog, consider other ways to lower your costs. Many providers offer discounts that can lower premiums from the initial quote. One of the most lucrative is the home/auto bundle; installing smoke alarms, deadbolt locks and other safety features can also reduce your costs.
Preventing dog-related lawsuits
All dog owners can do their part to prevent injuries and lawsuits caused by their dog:
- Socialize/train the dog. Introduce it to people early on, so that it will feel more comfortable when outside. Obedience courses are great, and you can get a certificate that might help you reduce your insurance costs. At the very least, teach the dog to sit, stay, heel and come when called.
- Play non-aggressive games. Fetch is excellent, while tug-of-war could teach aggressiveness.
- When the dog is outside, keep it on a leash. It’s great if you have a fenced-in yard and can let your dog run free there. Otherwise, you should keep it on a leash.
- If the dog acts uncomfortable, remove it from that situation. Supervise your pet around small children.
- Have your dog spayed/neutered. The procedure makes the dog much less likely to bite.
Steps a dog owner shouldn’t take
It would be easy to just not tell an insurer that you have a so-called “aggressive” dog or that your pet has previously bitten someone. But, that would be wrong, and it could backfire in a big way. If your pet bites someone, you won’t have coverage if the victim sues:
- Think it won’t matter as long as you win the lawsuit? Think again. In the very best-case scenario, you could spend tens of thousands of dollars out of your pocket to defend yourself. If you have homeowners coverage, it typically would help with legal expenses in this scenario.
- And if you lose the lawsuit? Then you’ll be responsible for those legal expenses and for any award made in the case. Remember, the average claim payout for dog bites is nearly $30,000. That could escalate quickly if you’re found responsible for rehabilitation costs or lost wages.
The potential risk
One thing you should accept: Dogs — even sweet ones — can be a liability. They do bite. Since 2012, home insurers have paid out more than $489 million in dog bite-related liability claims, according to the Insurance Information Institute. You can see why providers can be a little touchy. The institute reports that the total paid out annually for dog bites has increased more than 50 percent since 2003 and is likely to continue to do so.
Home insurance providers don’t hate dogs, although they do hate claims. But there’s no reason you have to accept a cancellation or premium hike without barking back.