• The San Juan Daily Star

Love your dog, but beware of your homeowners’ insurance

Felicia and Brian English walk their pit bulls in Washington Park, near their apartment in Albany, N.Y., June 5, 2022.

By Jane Gottlieb

When Brian English applied for renters’ insurance a few years ago, he described his dogs, Venom and Jean, as “mixed breed.” — a category that certainly covers pit bulls. Another time on an application, he wrote, “American Staffordshire terrier,” a fancier-sounding name for a type of pit bull.

“They said, ‘Oh, OK,’” said English. “In their mind, it’s a terrier.”

Ken Foster said when he was shopping for insurance that would cover any damage from storms, insurance firms were not enthusiastic about his three pit bulls and Rottweiler. “So if I’d had roof damage from a storm they could deny coverage based on a dog that looked like a certain kind of dog?” said Foster, 57, a freelance writer, a dog advocate and an author. “A roof and a dog are not related to each other.”

Insurance companies, which the Insurance Information Institute said paid out more than $881 million in dog-bite claims in 2021, have long been reluctant to offer homeowners’ or renters’ policies to households with pit bull varieties and several other breeds they say are most likely to cause injury. In most states, the companies can deny coverage or charge more for dogs considered dangerous, most often Doberman pinschers, Chow Chows, Rottweilers, sometimes German shepherds and mastiffs, and always pit bulls.

But in New York under a law that went into effect in January, insurance companies in the state can no longer use dog breed to decide on coverage, set rates, renew or cancel homeowners’ policies. New York joins a handful of other states, including Pennsylvania, Nevada and Michigan, in requiring the breed-blind insurance.

“Until now I’ve had to say ‘I’m sorry, unfortunately our guidelines prohibit us,’” said Don Ferlazzo, of Clifton Park, an Albany, New York, suburb, who wears sometimes-disparate hats as insurance agent and dog advocate. “It’s a tough conversation on a number of levels. We want to insure people. But more important, it’s a shame to prohibit someone who has rescued this animal, given it medical attention and love from making it part of the family.”

The new law represents a significant victory for supporters of the formidable breeds they say are unfairly tarnished by a killer-dog image. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society of the United States and other influential groups say insurance barriers force too many dogs to spend their lives in shelters. Emerging science, they maintain, proves a dog’s behavior is determined largely by how it is treated, not its breed.

Many people, however, continue to push for more restrictions for pit bulls and other breeds that have been associated with high-profile attacks and even deaths.

The New York Insurance Association warns that forcing companies to insure homes with dogs with aggressive tendencies will only spread costs to all policyholders. New York already recorded the highest average cost per dog-bite claim last year, $68,203, said Mark Friedlander, director of corporate communications at the Insurance Information Institute, based in New York City. Some property insurers might decide to discontinue homeowners’ insurance in New York, he said.

English, 37, an Army veteran who now works as a business development representative for a car dealer, and his wife, Felicia English, 35, a graphic artist, hope renters’ polices will eventually be addressed by state lawmakers. The couple, who live in Albany, have owned three pit bulls. Comic-book lovers, they have a tradition of naming their pets after their favorite characters, starting with Peter Parker and now with Jean, named for Jean Grey, the telepathic mutant of X-Men fame, and Venom, one of Spiderman’s many nemeses.

“It seems like every time you say you have a pit bull, magically, extra fees get attached,” Brian English said. “I wish these insurance companies and apartments that say no to pit bulls could meet them and see just how loving they are. I get upset about the stigma against them.”

‘Our sister Ginger’

The new law reflects a decadeslong debate about what constitutes a dangerous dog and how dogs have evolved from farmer’s helper to backyard pet to beloved family member fed homemade meals.

There are now about 1,000 local breed restrictions in 37 states. These range from muzzles and prohibitions from public parks to outright bans on pit bulls and other breeds considered aggressive, said Erin Henry, an assistant clinical professor of shelter medicine at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. The New York City Housing Authority, which once allowed dogs up to 40 pounds, now limits them to 25 pounds and prohibits Dobermans, pit bulls and Rottweilers.

Supporters of the maligned breeds have now convinced dozens of towns and cities to overturn restrictions, which have also been criticized as discriminatory because several of the breeds, including pit bulls, are embraced by Black residents in urban areas. In 2021, Denver replaced a 30-year pit bull ban with an evaluation process.

In New York, Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, a Manhattan Democrat, sponsored the legislation that ushered in the state’s new law. She had heard so many stories — significantly higher insurance rates for certain dogs, a family with a quiet Rottweiler unable to line up insurance to live in a building that allowed a yappy small dog — that she proposed the breed-blind law for homeowners’ insurance. (A separate measure covering renters’ policies is in the works, she said, although Friedlander said the new law already applies to such policies. )

Glick said the insurance industry has not provided the information needed to show that whole breeds are particularly threatening. Their practices, she said, are out of touch with how humans and dogs now coexist.

When Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the New York legislation in October, the assemblywoman released a statement that included her reflection on her mother’s dog. “In her later years, my mother had a fearsome looking German shepherd as her companion. We were happy people would think twice when my mother was alone. She was the sweetest and most gentle dog, and my sisters and I called her our sister Ginger.”

In a recent interview, she said, “These are members of people’s families. If we said, ‘We’re not sure we want to give you insurance for your 15 year-old son,’ you’d say, ‘What?’’’ she said. “We strongly believe that, properly trained, a dog doesn’t present a threat to anybody except a burglar coming through a window.”

National companies are moving away from targeting specific breeds and opting instead to look at a dog’s bite history, Friedlander said.

Although the new law in New York still gives companies the ability to deny coverage or set higher rates if a dog is deemed dangerous, it is on a case-by-case basis and the process is so onerous that it is ineffective, he said.

‘We Hear from Their Victims Every Day’

The push for looser restrictions for pit bulls and other certain other breeds has irked groups that say such dogs warrant more controls, not fewer, because they are so aggressive.

In 2014, Mia Johnson co-founded National Pit Bull Victim Awareness to track attacks in Canada and the United States, after a pit bull mutilated and killed her miniature Pinscher, Yuri, who was a service dog for her adult daughter who has Asperger’s syndrome and anxiety disorder.

“If there’s a make of car that tends to explode at high speeds, do you talk about educating the owners of those cars? Do you say the cars are misunderstood?” she asked. “It’s the car that’s the problem. It’s the type of dog that’s the problem. We hear from their victims every day.”

But no one seems to have an official count on how many dogs of which breeds cause injuries. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counts dog bites that send people to the emergency room, but does not record the dog’s breed. The New York State Department of Health tracks only bites involving rabid dogs. The Insurance Information Institute reported 17,989 dog-bite claims in 2021, but also doesn’t parse them by breed.

But, a group dedicated to telling the stories of those hurt or killed by dogs, reports that from 2005 to 2020, dogs killed 568 Americans, and that 380 deaths, or 67%, were caused by pit bulls. The organization gathers its data through media accounts and hospital records and uses photographs to verify the breed of dogs. Animal welfare groups dismiss their findings as biased and anecdotal.

Many groups say numbers mean little without also knowing if a dog acted on impulse, was provoked, mistreated or protecting its owner from an assault. “Pit bull attack” reports, they say, are often wrong, since pit bull is not a breed but a collection of the stocky, square-headed dogs that includes the American Staffordshire terrier, American pit bull terrier and mixes.

At the Hudson Mohawk Humane Society in Menands near Albany on a recent afternoon, 80 or so dogs filled the shelter, their barks and howls were nearly deafening as it was getting close to dinner time. Among them was Louie, a jowly 80-pound stray found in Schenectady, New York, who was scheduled to meet a prospective family the next day.

“We’ll say, ‘He is strong, but he’s sweet. He walks well on a leash,’” Nancy Haynes, the shelter’s behavioral expert said of the animated Louie, a mixed breed who stood to her shoulders as he awaited a treat. “It’s not about the breed. It’s about what we know about him. What we’ve seen.”

Pit bulls, mastiffs, Rottweilers, King Corsos, Dobermans, German shepherds and Chow Chows are surrendered more frequently, and stay longer, than the poodles and retrievers, the shelter staff said. The breeds’ prevalence in low-income households is a factor, particularly as many dog owners lost jobs during the pandemic. Their reputation as dangerous fighting dogs also makes them less adoptable.

“Unfortunately, these bully mixes aren’t the dogs everyone is looking for because of this myth that they are aggressive. Then, when pet owners need to surrender an animal, we don’t have space,” said Ashley Jeffrey Bouck, CEO of the shelter, which euthanizes animals only with debilitating and painful medical conditions. “When people do want to open their homes to our dogs, insurance can be a reason not to.”

Desperate for Insurance

More than a decade ago, Karen and James Porpeglia, of Schenectady County, New York, adopted Cole and Duke, two Dobermans, and searched for property where the dogs could roam on 5 acres.

They said their insurance company agreed to continue their homeowners’ coverage, until they revealed that the dogs were Dobermans.

Several more companies said no, leaving the family in house limbo, having sold one and purchased another. Finally they landed a policy, but the runaround was frustrating.

“We were both angry. We didn’t know what to do,” said Karen Porpeglia, 53, a high school Spanish teacher. “It seems like people are overly cautious about dogs like ours because of the things they hear. But our dogs are our dogs.”

Foster was living in New Orleans when his insurance company dropped him after he filed a claim for storm-related damage. He quickly learned that no one was eager to write a policy for a household with four dogs, three of them pit bulls. He was so desperate to insure his shotgun home in the Lower Ninth Ward that he offered to accept a policy that excluded claims regarding Bananas, Paul, Douglas and Rooney, whom he’d rescued from the streets. His idea was rejected.

A Doberman-owning insurance agent finally took pity on him, he said. Her solution: multiple policies pieced together at more than $7,000 a year.

Cost was a factor in his decision seven years ago to leave New Orleans for the Hudson Valley, which offers green space for his dogs and easy access to friends and clients in New York City. State Farm Insurance — not available in New Orleans when Foster lived there — offered homeowners’ coverage without even asking about pets. He pays about $1,500 a year for his four dogs in Newburgh, New York.

“There are a lot of people who would go through all of this but can’t,” Foster said. “If you don’t have that agent who wants to help and you can’t find an apartment that takes the dog, or you can’t afford the coverage, you might take the dog to the shelter.”

Finding an apartment is always a challenge for the Englishes, and now Brian English has a number of strategies to impress a landlord. These include offering to take obedience classes with his dogs, and getting renters’ insurance, or trying to. He sees people around the neighborhood who have a hard time controlling their pit bulls, or who crop their ears in a signal that they are to be feared, and he feels frustrated. He does not want Jean and Venom to come across as scary. He wonders why the good dog owners like him get treated like bad ones.

After being rejected many times, he finally discovered USAA, an insurance company that covers veterans like himself, with or without dogs. English makes it a point to let landlords know that he also served in the military.

“I’d even put on my old uniform if I had to!” he joked.

Now he can put the hassle and hustle behind him, thanks to the new law. “Once this lease in this place is up we’re going to get a home,” he said. “I was so happy when I found out about the law. Getting a house has always been the goal, now it’s more so.”

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