Beware of Dog

Bone up on how to reduce your risk of a pet liability claim

First, the good news: The number of homeowners insurance claims nationwide arising from dog bites decreased 7.2 percent between 2014 and 2015, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

Now, the bad news: The cost per claim increased from $32,027 to $37,214, up 16 percent, likely due to increased medical costs and higher settlements, judgments, and jury awards. And that’s not all: Claims related to dog bites and other dog-related injuries made up one-third of all homeowners liability claims in the U.S. in 2015. The total cost: $570 million.

That means many insurers are more cautious when providing policies for households with dogs. But that doesn’t mean you have to find Fido a new home to get homeowners (or renters or condo) coverage. If you have a dog, you can take these steps to reduce your risk.

Make sure you’re informed. Insurance policies vary when it comes to dogs. So be certain you know how much liability coverage you have (it’s typically between $100,000 to $500,000, but you may want to consider higher limits); whether the insurer has a “one-bite” policy (in other words, may cancel your policy after a second bite); and that your policy covers damages for which you may be legally liable (usually medical bills, time off work, pain and suffering, and property damage for anyone your dog injures). In some states, insurers might cap liability related to dog bites; some may exclude coverage for certain types of dogs; or might exclude dog bite coverage altogether. Also, your insurer may view other dog-related losses, such as knocking someone to the ground, in the same way.

Don't hide from your insurer the fact that you have a dog. You could be at risk if there are policy contract exclusions related to dog liability and you are unaware because you didn’t reveal you had a pet. Along the same lines, don’t forget to update your insurance if you get a new or an additional dog—issues could arise if your policy isn’t current. Some insurers even exclude and/or limit liability coverage on all domestic pets, including dogs or certain breeds of dog.

Enroll your dog in an obedience course. Some insurers require this. But even if they don’t, it’s a good idea. Think of it as preventive care: If your dog is well behaved and obeys your commands, it’ll be less likely to bite or jump on people. Try to provide your dog with opportunities to socialize with people and other dogs; this will help it learn to be friendly, rather than aggressive, with strangers who approach.

Don't let your dog interact with people unsupervised. You know your dog best. As long as you’re present, you can tell a friend or stranger to stop doing that thing that annoys your dog before your dog reacts. You can also wrangle your dog and help it settle down if it’s getting too aggressive. Also, if your dog spends part of the day unsupervised in your yard, secure your fence so that it can’t escape.

Keep a medical file on your dog. In the event that your dog bites someone, producing current vaccination records is essential.