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An insurer leaves certain dog owners with tough choices

Would you give up your family pet to help keep an insurance policy in-force? That vexing question was dogging a Montana pet lover who recently faced possible eviction from her mobile home park residence unless she agreed to send away her beloved German shepherd Rocko.

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"I would never give up Rocko, so I was prepared to move," said Rhonda Hoyem, a Gallatin County court clerk who lives in a mobile home in Bozeman. "I was relieved that the carrier took German shepherds off its ban list," admitted Hoyem, "but that doesn't help many of my neighbors here."

"Don't make up a list of dogs to ban from a residence; require dog owners to act responsibly and have them take steps to make their pets less aggressive."

The park has an estimated 300 residents and "between 20 and 30 of them still face eviction in six months if they don't get rid of their dogs," she said. Pet owner troubles for Hoyem and her neighbors began recently when the park's liability insurer had indicated that because of dog bite liability considerations the company would discontinue coverage unless park management bans certain breeds.

On that insurer's dog breed blacklist were German shepherds, Rottweilers, pit bulls, chow chows, Doberman pinschers and wolf hybrids. "None of our dogs have bitten or displayed aggression. We were being discriminated against based on what our dogs might do, not for what they had done," Hoyem insisted.

Hoyem pointed to an irony in the insurer's position. It's ironic to me that the insurer had German shepherds on the list, a breed that hasn't been known to kill people, and yet the list doesn't include Presa Canarios, the breed of dog that killed that poor young woman in San Francisco."

National media attention not long ago was focused on two Presa Canarios that had mauled to death a St. Mary's College coach inside her San Francisco apartment building.

Hoyem offered a suggestion to carriers concerned about dog bite liability. "Don't make up a list of dogs to ban from a residence; require dog owners to act responsibly and have them take steps to make their pets less aggressive."

To that end, Hoyem recommended that dog owners get their "pets spayed or neutered, enroll them in dog obedience school classes, that sort of thing. Making up and using a dog breed ban list does a disservice to the community."

"Dogs you have can be a factor in whether or not you can be considered an acceptable risk," explains Omar Morales, spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California. Morales's sentiments gain reinforcement from alarming data obtained from organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Insurance Information Institute, in New York.

Certain insurers charge extra or don't issue coverage for those with certain dog breeds.

The CDC claims that there are about 4.7 million dog bits a year. These incidents cost more than $1 billion. III found that the insurance industry paid out $310 million in 2001 dog bite liability claims, up from $250 million in 1996.

Given the statistics, it's not surprising that certain insurers charge extra or don't issue coverage for those with certain dog breeds. A spokeswoman for the American Insurance Association explains why some insurers are more selective than others when it comes to dog bite liability exposures.

"Based on loss trends, companies have to understand what they're insuring, meaning their potential losses," says AIA's Nicole Mahrt. "Many companies will continue to cover exposures involving all breeds of dogs, while others may take a different approach."

"There are some dogs such as Presa Canarios that are virtually noninsurable because of the growing frequency and severity of dog bites and attacks on humans," says Jerry Davies, spokesman for the Personal Insurance Federation of California (PIFC). PIFC members include California's two largest homeowners insurance writers, State Farm and Farmers.

Davies advises dog owners to get suitable training for their pets, because that "might make the difference in whether the insurer will cover your household or not. It's very important for dog owners to prevent bite incidents by taking proper precautions such as leashing your dog when walking around the neighborhood and keeping the dog fenced in at night."

Unavailable for comment at press time was the insurance agency that arranges liability protection for the park.

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