Monday, May 17, 2010

Their bite is worse then their bark

As this week, May 16-22, is National Dog Bite prevention week I thought this was a good topic for discussion and wanted to share a personal experience I had with this very subject matter.

While on an adventure south during a spring break trip, I stopped to stay with my brother in North Carolina. At the time, my brother had a room mate who had a dog, a Rottweiler. Now this dog was actually quite friendly, but did have some aggressive tendencies. While there, I came down stairs, encountered the dog and leaned over to pet him on top of the head. Unbeknownst to me, just few minutes before another friend had been playing a game with the dog where by he would lean over, scuffle with the dog then retreat; the dog in turn would playfully nip at him as he retreated. As you can imagine, as I leaned down the dog assumed this was a continuation of the game. Needless to say, the result was rather unpleasant and involved a trip to the hospital. I won’t share the details here, but let’s just say you would be surprised how little force the dog had to use to cause significant damage to me.

As an independent insurance agent, with over 20 years of experience I have seen a fair share of dog bite claims against my clients such as I just described. Dog bites continue to be a significant problem in the US and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) over 4.5 Million dog bite incidents occur in the US every year. Of those over 900,000 require medical care and well over half of them are children.

The Insurance Information Institute (III) shows for the years 2003 through 2008 there was an average of 15,310 claims per year and with an average total value of $337.83 million dollars in damages; that works out to a little over $22,000 per claim. The good news is that these were covered claims by the insurance carriers. The bad news is that the industry as a whole is engaging in breed profiling and closing the door on coverage for many know aggressive breeds of dogs. Their reaction to certain dogs can range from exclusion of coverage for the dog to outright refusal to write any liability coverage at all. Some of the breeds on various insurance carrier “hit lists” include:

  1. Akita
  2. Alaskan Malamute
  3. American Pit Bull Terrier
  4. Chow Chow
  5. Doberman Pincher
  6. German Shepard
  7. Rottweiler
  8. Siberian Husky
  9. Wolf Hybrids
  10. Any dog with a bite history

There is now a whole industry of specialty insurance carriers selling dog liability only policies, to help people that can not find insurance with the standard markets. However, a buyer of this type of coverage should be wary, as these policies tend to be written on proprietary forms that have terms and conditions limiting coverage. Also they are not inexpensive, though when faced with a complete lack of coverage at all, they can be worth the cost.

There are also many steps you can take to limit your risk of claim as a dog owner, regardless of the breed of dog you own. The III recommends the following:

  • Consult with a professional (e.g., veterinarian, animal behaviorist, or responsible breeder) to learn about suitable breeds of dogs for your household and neighborhood.
  • Spend time with a dog before buying or adopting it. Use caution when bringing a dog into a home of with an infant or toddler. Dogs with histories of aggression are inappropriate in households with children.
  • Be sensitive to cues that a child is fearful of or apprehensive about a dog and, if so, delay acquiring a dog. Never leave infants or young children alone with any dog.
  • Have your dog spayed or neutered. Studies show that dogs are three times more likely to bite if they are NOT neutered.
  • Socialize your dog so it knows how to act with other people and animals. Discourage children from disturbing a dog that is eating or sleeping.
  • Play non-aggressive games with your dog, such as “go fetch.” Playing aggressive games like “tug-of-war” can encourage inappropriate behavior.
  • Avoid exposing your dog to new situations in which you are unsure of its response.
  • Never approach a strange dog and always avoid eye contact with a dog that appears threatening.
  • Immediately seek professional advice from veterinarians, animal behaviorists, or responsible breeders if the dog develops aggressive or undesirable behaviors

The best tip of all is to never underestimate your own dog’s propensity to bite. After all, the bite on you wallet could be the worse bite of all.