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Dog liability insurance fills home insurance gaps

If your homeowners or renters insurance company decides your dog is too risky to cover, you might have to buy a separate dog liability insurance policy for protection.

Dog liability insurance is a small but growing niche market in the insurance industry. A relatively small number of specialty insurance companies and brokers sell it. Generally a stand-alone canine liability policy covers expenses if your dog injures someone or damages someone else's property. Without liability coverage on your dog, you're on the hook for paying the bills, which for dog bite injuries can add up to tens of thousands of dollars.

The average cost of a dog liability claim paid out by home insurers in 2013 was $27,862, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

dog liability insuranceThe demand for dog liability insurance has grown slowly and steadily as home insurance companies have gotten pickier about which dogs they'll cover. Typically a home insurance policy's liability coverage has included dogs. But a growing number of home insurers now exclude "dangerous" breeds from liability coverage or some require dog owners to sign liability waivers for dog bites. It can also be difficult to find coverage through a homeowners or renters insurance policy if you've had a past insurance claim because of your dog.

"Dogs became an issue about 18 years ago," says Rick Lindsey, chair and CEO of Prime Holdings Insurance Services Inc. Insurers began excluding dogs from coverage in Ohio, Florida and big eastern cities, he says.

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Prime Holdings owns Prime Insurance Co., which underwrites dog liability and other policies, and Evolution Insurance Brokers in Sandy, Utah, which also sells a variety of policies, including dog liability, online at Xinsurance.com. Lindsey says his company gets about 50 to 200 calls a week from dog owners looking for coverage.

When your home insurance company doesn't like your dog

If your renters or homeowners insurance company excludes your dog from liability coverage, you might be able to get him covered by purchasing an umbrella liability policy. An umbrella policy provides general liability coverage above and beyond the limits on your home and auto policies and for some risks not covered by those policies.

But you have to read the fine print. Depending on how it's written, an umbrella policy might not cover your dog if he's excluded on the home insurance policy, says Deborah Turner, founder of the Federation of Insured Dog Owners in Altamonte Springs, Fla.

Turner's love for dogs and a background in insurance led her to start the federation, which sells dog liability policies underwritten by Great American Insurance Co. The coverage is available in California, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah and Wisconsin.

Premiums for dog liability insurance vary widely according to the amount of coverage you buy and your dog's breed, history, age, weight and other factors, such as whether it is spayed or neutered.

The cost of a policy for a small, spayed dog starts at about $125 a year for coverage of $50,000 to $100,000, she says.

It's you, not your dog

If a dog has gotten in trouble, Lindsey says his company talks to the owner before issuing a policy. If the dog has a history of being uncontrollable, the company will require the dog to stay at a kennel for a few weeks and complete obedience training with a professional before issuing a policy.

"It's not the dog as much as the owner," Lindsey says. "It's how the dog's treated and maintained."

Dori Einhorn of Einhorn Insurance Agency in San Diego, says, "I'd take a responsible pit bull owner over an irresponsible lab owner any day."

Einhorn is the proud owner and advocate of pit bulls, which the agency touts as its CBOs -- chief barking officers. The Einhorn agency, which sells dog liability and other types of insurance, is licensed to do business in 27 states and can refer dog owners to affiliates in other states.

Only in rare cases is a dog uninsurable for a stand-alone dog liability policy, she says. But the coverage costs more if a dog has a claims history. You're going to pay a lot more for a German Shepherd that bit somebody than a Maltipoo with a clean claims record. Einhorn says the average amount of coverage her agency sells per policy is for $25,000 to $100,000.

Dog liability claims are not limited to bites. Imagine your friendly dog jumps on a neighbor to greet him, and the neighbor falls and hits his head on the curb. That scenario happened to one of the Einhorn agency's clients. The injured person had about $40,000 in medical expenses.

If you were the dog owner in that case and had no liability coverage, you'd be on the hook for 40 grand.

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