When describing the “American Dream” key parts usually include raising a family in a home out in the country. Included with that ‘family’ is usually a family dog. But the breed of dog you choose can impact on the liability you expose yourself to and how much you will pay for insurance; if you can even get insurance.

Homeowner’s insurance companies paid out $675 million in liability claims related to dog bites and other dog-related injuries in 2018, according to the Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) and State Farm®. The average cost per claim increased by 5.3 percent in 2018. The average cost paid out for dog bite claims nationwide was $39,017, up from $37,051 in 2017. The average cost per claim nationally has risen more than 103 percent from 2003 to 2018, due to increased medical costs as well as the size of settlements, judgments, and jury awards given to plaintiffs, which are still trending upwards.

The insurance companies deal with rising loss costs in a few ways: increase the cost of the insurance policy, exclude the coverage, or limit what the policy will pay after a loss. Most commonly the insurance companies have established restricted breed lists and simply refuse to write a policy when one of these dogs is present. If you have a dog on that restricted breed list or are considering getting one, you need to rethink how that dog will fit in with your family; your financial stability could be at risk.

I checked a few insurance company “Restricted Breed” lists and found the following are commonly included on those lists: Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Pit Bull Terrier, Chow chow, Rottweiler, Mastiff, Wolf hybrids, Doberman Pinscher, German Shepard, Akita, and Presa Canario. That is not an all inclusive list; just the breeds common to three or more of the lists I reviewed.

Your dog may not appear vicious at all. I do not have the technical knowledge to explain how, and factually if, aggressive behaviors bred into a dog’s lineage generations before can surface under the right circumstances. I can tell you that after a dog bite, when a Plaintiff’s attorney (the attorney for the person injured) sees that his or her client was bitten by one of the restricted breed dogs, he’s licking his lips in expectation of a big pay out.

As the dog owner there are three measures that commonly affect how much the court settlement will end up being: The first is the doctrine of “Strict Liability”. Basically if the plaintiff was bitten by one of the restricted breeds, the breed has a known track record of bites, therefore they need only show who owns or possesses the dog, that the dog bit the plaintiff, resulting in mental and physical injury to the plaintiff.  The next is the “one bite” rule. Having bitten once prior, the dog has now demonstrated aggressive behavior. It is reasonable to expect that behavior will continue. If and when it does, Negligence is easy to show. The third is tied to regulatory actions. Many communities have leash laws and other dog bite statutes which require you to have control of your dog. Failure to have that control is a demonstration of negligence on the part of the animal’s owner.

Can I still be sued if my dog bites a person breaking in? There are gray areas here but the reality is yes you can. While many dog owners cite “security” as the reason to have a dog, the reality is that less than 1% of those bitten are unlawful intruders. More than 70% are children, and most of them are from that property or neighboring properties.

As the cost of dog bites continues to escalate, so too will the actions being taken by insurance companies to restrict their losses. Today there is a question on every Homeowner’s application requiring you to list all dogs at your residence including the breed, age, and bite history. The underwriters even want to know percentages when dealing with mixed breed dogs. Failure to disclose this information is grounds for policy cancellation by the company. If you have one of these dogs now, confirm that your policy does not exclude that breed from coverage in your actual insurance policy. It may not exclude the coverage but it may limit the amount of coverage attributable to a dog bite. Some will restrict coverage to a limit of $10,000, or $25,000 or $50,000. Once the loss exceeds that limit, you are left paying both the loss and the defense (legal) costs.  If you haven’t had a dog bite loss yet, know that once you do, I can virtually guarantee that your policy will be non-renewed when your renewal date comes around. (That’s a nice way of saying you’re being canceled!).

So you have a dog, how do you protect your financial security and the safety of those potentially visiting your home? First check your insurance policy or call your insurance agent. Adjust your liability limits to be sure you have adequate limits to cover the potential loss your dog could expose you to.

This dog is supposed to be part of your family. You didn’t grow up without discipline, guidance, training and love. Your dog needs that too. To reduce the chance of a dog developing aggressive behavior one trainer wrote some key steps:

  • Take the time necessary to properly train your dog. Most veterinarians can refer you to professional trainers and animal behaviorists. 
  • Play non-aggressive games such as throwing a ball or Frisbee; aggressive games like tug-a war encourage the inappropriate behavior.
  • Socialize you dog so it knows how to act with other people and animals.
  • If you are unsure of your dog’s response to a new situation, expose the animal only when you are confident you can quickly gain control of the situation if it is not tolerated well.
  • Have your dog spayed or neutered. Studies show that dogs are three times more likely to bite when they are NOT neutered.

Most dogs are friendly and deserving of being labeled “man’s best friend”. But even normally docile dogs may bite when they are frightened, or when protecting their puppies, owners, or food. Ultimately, the responsibility for properly training and controlling a dog rests with its owner.