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A heart-breaking choice: The family dog or home insurance

Although U.S. households with dogs now outnumber those with kids by a 2-to-1 margin, dog owners can face difficult and even heartbreaking choices when it comes to securing or renewing home insurance.

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Just ask Frank and Janine Bodnar of suburban Las Vegas.

Like many older dogs that live their entire lives with a single family, Dice -- Frank and Janine Bodnar's 9-year-old Dalmatian -- was protective of his master and mistress. "Dice didn't like new people," recalls Janine Bodnar, who herself had to win over Dice after she and Frank began dating. "You had to earn his trust."

So when Frank's aunt came for a visit, he warned her  to stay away from the dog's backyard pen. She disregarded Frank's caution with a "but I'm good with dogs" comment and tried to pet him. Unfortunately, she almost lost her finger when Dice bit her.

"Dice had never bitten anyone before, but he also wasn't the stereotypical family dog who rolled around on the floor with you," Janine Bodnar says. "He was very protective of my husband."

Frank’s aunt subsequently filed a claim against the Bodnars’ home insurance policy, which was at the time issued through Allstate Insurance Co. Her finger was successfully reattached and she regained full use of it. Allstate paid the home insurance claim of about $40,000, according to Janine.

Case closed -- until insurance renewal time

Frank Bodnar and Dice
Frank Bodnar with Dice

The Bodnars assumed the matter was behind them until nine months later, when their home insurance policy came up for renewal. "The agent said, 'We're reviewing the claim from the dog bite and we've come to the conclusion that we're going to cancel your insurance if you don't put the dog down,'" Janine recalls.

The agent warned the Bodnars that the family would be “blacklisted” and unable to obtain home insurance from another carrier if they kept the dog, she adds. "It was a messed-up ultimatum they gave us," says Janine, who now works for a State Farm Insurance and Financial Services office in Henderson, Nev. (although she did not at the time of the incident with Dice).

The Bodnars considered giving Dice away, but due to his aggressiveness with strangers, they decided against it. Dog sanctuaries wouldn’t accept him because he had bitten someone. After they had agonizing discussions with their veterinarian, Dice was euthanized.

"It was heart-breaking," Janine says. "The dog was 175 pounds and he slept in Frank's bed. Dice swam in the pool. He would climb into the Jacuzzi and sit with Frank. My husband still has the dog's ashes."

Allstate says it does not discuss specific claims out of respect for its policyholders' privacy. However,  company spokesperson Krissy Posey responded via email: "It is the homeowner's responsibility to inform us if they own a dog," Posey wrote. "Certain dog breeds are associated with certain risks, and depending on the state in which the customer lives, there may be restrictions based on these risks."

Nevada's dog statute requires that to be declared "dangerous" and subject to euthanasia, an unprovoked dog must attack or act menacingly toward someone twice within an 18-month period while unconfined or away from its owner's property. Dalmatians typically are not on lists of "dangerous dogs" that insurance companies ban from homes for which they write home insurance policies.

Dog bites and the law

About 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year, and one in five dog bites causes injuries severe enough to require medical attention, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In response, some states have passed laws penalizing owners whose dogs cause serious injuries or deaths.

In about one-third of U.S. states, owners are responsible for their dogs' behavior regardless of the circumstance. In the rest of the country, owners are liable only if they knew or should have known their dog was predisposed to bite, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III).

Some municipalities have enacted bans on specific breeds, but several states -- including Pennsylvania and Michigan -- have laws that prohibit insurers from canceling or denying home insurance coverage to owners of particular dog breeds, according to the American Kennel Club and III.

Ohio's statute, for example, labels pit bulls as a "vicious dog" and requires owners to carry at least $100,000 in personal liability insurance.

Dog bites and home insurance

America's growing love affair with "man's best friend" has no doubt spurred the number of dog bites and attacks, which in turn has fueled home insurance claims. According to the III:

  • Dog bites account for one-third of all home insurance liability claims and increased almost 9 percent in 2008 over the prior year, the most recent data available.
  • Since 2003, the cost of dog-bite claims has risen nearly 28 percent, to almost $390 million in 2008.
  • The average dog bite claim was $24,461 in 2008, a slight decrease over the 2007 average of $24,511.

Depending on the insurer, owning certain dog breeds and crossbreeds could prevent you from obtaining home insurance. Other insurers consider breeds on a case-by-case basis and may charge higher premiums to homeowners with certain breeds that are considered more likely to bite.

State Farm, which now insures the Bodnars, asks prospective policyholders two questions about their dogs when they apply for home insurance: Has the dog ever bitten anyone and has it been trained as an attack dog?

"We would look at the facts of the claim and handle it accordingly," says State Farm spokesperson Kip Diggs. "Generally speaking, a single claim usually wouldn't cause a cancellation."

The Bodnar family after Dice

When Dice died, Frank’s ability to bond with animals was shattered, Janine says. "My husband has no connection with animals any longer because he can't get hurt again," she says. Janine’s dog, Nala, who she had when she and Frank met, "adores him, but he has nothing to do with her. It's sad."

The tragedy also strained the family's relationship with Frank's aunt. "She felt guilty because it was an 'I told you so' situation," Janine says.

The Bodnars' antipathy is reserved for Allstate. "We were naïve," Janine says. Based on what she now knows about insurance, she believes her family could have kept Dice and qualified for a home insurance policy, albeit more expensive, through another company.

"It was tough, really tough," she says. "There are no words to describe watching someone's heart break."

About the author: Rebecca Theim is a principal with Las Vegas-based Tipitina Communications Inc. Rebecca began her career as a daily newspaper reporter, and also has worked in senior PR and communications roles in a variety of industries. Rebecca holds master's and bachelor's degrees from Northwestern University and a master's degree from Ohio State University, where she was a fellow in the Kiplinger Midcareer Program in Public Affairs Reporting.

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