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Beware of Biting dogs (and Liability claims)

Jun 15, 2012

Beware of Biting Dogs (and Liability Claims)

A trainer in Los Angeles demonstrates how to avoid dog bites.Associated PressAn S.P.C.A. trainer in Los Angeles demonstrates how to avoid dog bites.

Inspector Clouseau got lots of laughs when he was bitten by a mutt in a classic scene from the movie "The Pink Panther Strikes Again." But in real life, aggressive dogs can be a big problem. Dog bite claims account for more than a third of all homeowner's insurance liability claims paid out, according to an insurance industry group.

That proportion has remained roughly constant over the last decade, according to Loretta Worters of the Insurance Information Institute. And the number of claims has hovered around 15,000 to 16,000 annually over the last 10 years, though with an uptick last year. But the average cost per claim was more than $29,000 in 2011, an increase of 25 percent in eight years (after accounting for inflation), mostly because of increases in medical costs. State Farm says it paid out more than $109 million as a result of 3,800 dog bite claims last year.

Homeowner's liability insurance covers you for injuries or damage to someone else — say, someone slipping on your icy steps in winter, or your dog biting the neighbor's child when he comes over to play with your child. (Or, if your dog bites someone while you're out walking it in the park.)

"If your dog bites somebody, you are liable," said Robert Hartwig III, president of the institute.

The institute, along with other organizations like the United States Postal Service, are publicizing dog bite statistics to highlight National Dog Bite Prevention Week.

Typically, homeowner's and renter's insurance cover dog liability as part of the policy's standard coverage with limits up to $100,000 or $300,000. Most companies will insure homeowners with dogs, but once a dog has bitten someone, your premium may go up — or the dog may be excluded from coverage. Still others require the owner to take the dog to behavior modification classes to continue coverage.

To prevent dog bites in the first place, experts offer these tips:

  • Check with a professional, like a veterinarian or breeder, to learn about suitable dog breeds.
  • Spend time with a dog before buying or adopting it, and use caution when bringing a dog into a home with an infant or toddler.
  • Have your dog spayed or neutered.
  • Seek professional advice if your dog develops aggressive behavior.
  • Discourage children from bothering a dog when it is eating or sleeping. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than half of the 4.7 million Americans bitten by dogs annually are children.)
  • Never approach a strange dog, especially one that's tethered or confined, and avoid eye contact with a dog that appears threatening.
  • Don't run past a dog.
  • If you are knocked down by a dog, curl into a ball and protect your face with your hands.

Have you ever been bitten by a dog? Or has your dog ever bitten someone?

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