By Meg Green, A.M. Best Company, Inc., from Insurance News Net
Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. said it's offering automobile and home insurance to American Kennel Club dog owners, including owners of two breeds that were once considered too dangerous to insure.
"The Hartford is potentially making underwriting concessions if we can demonstrate responsible dog ownership," said Sarah Cook, assistant vice president of Hartford.
Eligible dog owners include owners of American Staffordshire Terriers and Rottweilers, two breeds that were once ineligible for coverage.
Dog bites are a major concern for insurers. Half of all dog bite incident occur at the dog owners' property and a third of all homeowners insurance liability claims stem from dog bites, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
Rottweilers and "pit bulls" -- a generic term, not an AKC-recognized breed -- were involved with 50% of the fatal dog attacks on people in a 20-year period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Historically, owners of American Staffordshire Terriers and Rottweilers have not been eligible for coverage with Hartford. However, owners of the dogs may be eligible for coverage today if the dogs pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen Test.
"Under our prior guidelines, they would have been automatically denied," Cook said. "However, when the dogs are properly trained and have demonstrated obedience, we are comfortable with opening those guidelines."
Lisa Peterson, a spokeswoman for the AKC, said the AKC Canine Good Citizen Test is a 10-step test for dogs and their owners to demonstrate the dog's good manners. It includes making sure that dogs behave well when walking on a leash, sitting, staying and meeting a stranger.
"There is no inherently dangerous dog. It is irresponsible dog owners who create dangerous dogs," Peterson said. She said insurance companies' lists of "banned" dog breeds are "extremely random."
"They can be different from company to company and even from agent to agent," Peterson said. "One bad dog, and all the sudden, the entire breed is banned. But no breed is inherently dangerous."
Allstate Insurance Group excludes certain breeds from coverage in homeowners policies, but it varies by state. Other insurers often tackle the issue on a case-by-case basis, and companies including State Farm Group, Farmers Insurance Group and Liberty Mutual Insurance Cos. don't have blanket dog-breed bans in homeowners policies (BestWire, Aug. 23, 2010).
Dog breeds fall in and out of favor, and a breed considered dangerous today might be openly accepted tomorrow -- and visa versa, Cook said.
"Back in the 1970s, German Shepherds and Doberman Pinschers were considered dangerous. Then it began to be the 'bully' breeds. It shifts, it's cyclical," Peterson said.
One town had considered banning "pit bulls" and Chihuahuas, she said.
American Staffordshire Terriers and Rottweilers are just two of the 167 breeds recognized by the AKC.
While owners of any dog with a history of biting might face more of a challenge to find insurance coverage, Hartford said its coverage includes dogs that aren't officially recognized by the AKC.
"The Hartford insurers millions of mutts today," Cook said. "We're open to writing mixed breeds."
About 39% of U.S. households own at least one dog, according to the Human Society of the United States.
Insurers' payouts for dog bites rose 6.4% in 2009, according to an analysis by the Insurance Information Institute. The rise can be attributed to higher medical costs as well as the size of settlements, judgments and jury awards given to plaintiffs, which have risen above the rate of inflation, the institute said. At $412 million, the cost of claims has risen 27.1% since 2003, when payouts totaled $324.2 million said. The cost of the average claim edged up 1.5% in 2009 to $24,840 from $24,461 in 2008, and up 29.6% from $19,162 in 2003, the earliest year for the institute analysis (Best's Review, November 2010).
Hartford Insurance Group's operating subsidiaries currently have a Best's Financial Strength Rating of A (Excellent).