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Mary Ellis and her husband Ben with one of their dozen huskys.
Mary Ellis and her husband Ben with one of their dozen huskys. (John Tlumacki/ Globe Staff)

Pet owners, insurance firms in dog fight

Bill aims to stop breed 'profiling'

(Correction: Because of incorrect information provided by a spokeswoman, a Page One story Sunday about insurers that refuse to provide homeowners coverage to people who own certain breeds of dogs incorrectly stated that Yorkshire terriers are among the breeds Commerce Insurance Company considers ''unacceptable.")

Mary Ellis, who has owned Siberian huskies for 25 years, was incensed when her insurer canceled its policy on her Bridgewater home even though, she said, she had never filed a claim and her dogs had never bitten anyone. Ellis was told by Commerce Insurance Company that her five huskies, a breed described by the American Kennel Club as ''friendly and gentle," made her a risky customer.

''No matter how you look at it, it's profiling and discrimination," said Ellis, who breeds and shows 12 huskies at her licensed home kennel, Mishnok Siberians. ''It lumps all huskies into one group along with other dogs that people may perceive as vicious . . . but the decision should fall on whether or not a person is a responsible owner, not on profiling a particular breed."

Now, Ellis and other dog owners nationwide are fighting back. A proposed law, backed by the Massachusetts Federation of Dog Clubs and Responsible Dog Owners, would make it illegal for insurance companies in the state to refuse homeowners coverage based on specific breeds of dogs, or from charging higher premiums to people who own certain breeds. Ten other states have pending legislation that would prohibit breed-specific policies, according to the American Kennel Club.

Dog owners routinely face rejection by insurance companies unwilling to underwrite homes with so-called aggressive breeds. The black list typically includes Akitas, American bulldogs, American Staffordshire terriers (also known as pit bulls), Chows, Doberman pinschers, German shepherds, and Rottweilers, but dog owners say insurers sometimes also shun boxers, collies, dalmatians, schnauzers, Siberian huskies, and other breeds not as commonly associated with aggression.

Commerce, which underwrites more homes in the state than any other insurer, considers about a dozen types of dogs ''unacceptable," including Yorkshire terriers, a toy breed that rarely weighs more than 7 pounds. The company would not discuss Ellis's situation, saying it does not comment on specific cases, and did not explain why Yorkshires are on its list.

Insurers say breed-specific policies are driven by high numbers of dog bites that result in expensive insurance claims, including costly cosmetic surgeries for disfiguring scars. Dogs bite more than 4.7 million people each year, and about 800,000 of those who are bitten -- half of them children -- require medical attention, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Bites accounted for about a quarter of all homeowner claims in 2003, costing insurers roughly $321 million, or about $16,600 per bite in 2002, as calculated by the Insurance Information Institute, a nonprofit trade group.

''The whole issue of dog bites is an absolutely huge problem," said Frank O'Brien, vice president of the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, a national trade association, which opposes the bill.

The proposed law would let insurers refuse coverage or charge higher premiums to homeowners with an individual dog designated as dangerous. But O'Brien called that loophole ''unworkable," since a dog labeled dangerous presumably has already bitten someone. ''And if they've already bitten someone, we've got a claim," he said. ''It's not a solution."

Many canine clubs and animal welfare groups note that any breed will bite if not properly trained. Breed-specific underwriting, they say, punishes responsible dog owners for irresponsible dog owners' acts. The American Kennel Club even argues that dogs should be considered assets by insurers, since they can be natural alarm systems whose bark may deter intruders.

It is legal in most states for insurance companies to charge higher premiums or refuse to write or renew a policy based on a breed of dog. That can leave dog owners like Ellis scrambling for alternatives.

Unable to find another company to insure her, she was forced to turn several years ago to the quasi-public Massachusetts FAIR plan, which provides coverage to homeowners who cannot secure insurance in the private market.

Breed-specific guidelines vary by company and state, and many insurers are reluctant to disclose which breeds they frown on since revealing underwriting criteria could put them at a competitive disadvantage. Many dog owners believe insurers are also protective of the lists because they fear customers may not be forthright about dog ownership if they know they own a banned breed.

Insurers say dog-specific underwriting criteria are typically based on a breed's general temperament and history, a specific company's claims history, and statistics on dog bites and dog-related fatalities. ''So while we're not saying that every dog of that breed has vicious tendencies," said Doug Hamilton, underwriting manager for the Andover Companies, the state's second-largest home insurer, which includes Cambridge Mutual and Merrimack Mutual, ''we're concerned about their breeding characteristics and history as a group."

But dog owners say underwriting criteria are often based on stereotypes, unreliable data, and misinformation.

Andrea Dormady, an agent at Borhek Insurance Agency in Halifax who is also on the board of directors of the Irish Wolfhound Association of New England, said she knows of wolfhound owners who have lost coverage because, she believes, their insurers mistakenly thought the dogs were wolf hybrids.

''I've seen Newfoundlands on the lists, and mastiffs and St. Bernard's, which are generally nicer dogs," said Dormady, who owns O'Lugh Kennel in Duxbury. ''It's generally based on a company's loss experience, so if they've had a couple of mastiff bites then mastiffs go on the list because that company has had a poor experience with them." Insurers can also be reluctant to underwrite rare international breeds, dog club members said.

''We understand that insurance companies want to reduce their risk, but we don't feel that just focusing on breed is the best way to do that," said Kara Holmquist, advocacy director for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who testified in support of the bill at a State House hearing earlier this month. The bill was filed by state representative Anne Gobi, a Spencer Democrat.

Holmquist and others said coverage decisions should take into account obedience training, fencing, spaying and neutering (since more than 70 percent of dogs involved in attacks are unneutered males, according to the Humane Society of the United States), a dog's past history, and the circumstances surrounding a bite.

About 12 dog-related fatalities occur each year, with pit bulls, Rottweilers, German shepherds, ''husky-type" dogs, wolf hybrids, and Malamutes causing most of the deaths, according to a CDC study of fatal human attacks in the US between 1979 and 1998. But the CDC notes that its study does not track breeds most likely to bite, making it inappropriate for insurers to use the data to make policy decisions.

''Dachshunds have been involved in fatalities, and so have Labradors and cocker spaniels," said Dr. Julie Gilchrist, a medical epidemiologist for the CDC. ''Any dog can bite and any dog can kill." Indeed, a 6-week-old California baby was killed in 2000 by her family's Pomeranian, a breed that averages about 5 pounds.

The American Insurance Association, a national trade group, opposes legislation that would dictate underwriting criteria because ''in a healthy marketplace, consumers can usually shop around and find someone who meets their needs," said spokesman Michael Moran. ''Once you force companies to do things they don't have an appetite to take a risk on . . . [there will] just be fewer insurers available who want to write the business."

Still, dog owners say, breed-specific policies can force homeowners to choose between beloved family pets and affordable insurance, and animal shelters say potential adopters are often unwilling to adopt certain breeds out of fear that they will be unable to obtain insurance.

''I do not deny that individual dogs may bite," said Virginia Rowland, president of the Massachusetts Federation of Dog Clubs and Responsible Dog Owners, ''but to blame a whole breed for what a very, very few dogs have done is just totally unfair."

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com.

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