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Dog owner hounded over insurance

Dog trainer Judith Bell looks on as Jan Michael asks her dog, Abby, to sit – one requirement of an obedience certification test.  - JULIE BUSCH photo
Dog trainer Judith Bell looks on as Jan Michael asks her dog, Abby, to sit – one requirement of an obedience certification test.
— image credit: JULIE BUSCH photo

Certifying dog’s good manners lets homeowner keep dog and policy.

Experienced dog owner Jan Michael enrolled her 4-month-old Doberman, Abby, in training classes as a matter of course.

“We’re people who believe you really need to train your dog,” she said. “I think any dog is more pleasant for a family if you have a well-trained dog and if people come to the house.”

So Michael was surprised, when after filling out an insurance questionnaire last fall, she learned she might lose coverage on her Bainbridge home because of her Doberman – unless Abby passed the Canine Good Citizen test.

The American Kennel Club established the CGC in 1989 to recognize a standard of good behavior in dogs.

Michael’s case is not unusual. Rather, it is part of a growing trend among insurance companies to restrict coverage based on the breed of the home’s pet dog.

CGC certification is one tool that dog owners are using to prove their pet is a low risk.

“Legislators are beginning to look at the CGC certification as a way to allow banned breeds ownership, as it signifies that the owner is a responsible owner who understands the need to control his dog’s behavior,” said instructor Judith Bell of Beaujes Dog Training, who teaches on the island and worked with Michael.

Karl Newman, president of the Northwest Insurance Council, whose members write about 80 percent of homeowner’s insurance policies in Washington, said that half of its members have a list of red-flagged dog breeds, such as Pit Bull, Akita and Chow.

Of those, one-third simply will not insure a home if its owners keep such a dog, but two-thirds will consider circumstances such as training and the dog’s living environment. And having the CGC certificate helps, he said.

Luckily for Michael, her insurance company recognizes CGC.

“The insurance (company) said, ‘As long as you show certification that (Abby) is a well-trained dog, it’s OK,’” Michael said. “These breed-specific legislation effects go beyond pit bull attacks. I’m thrilled that there’s a way we can show we spent the time and investment.”

Bell says that aggression in dogs is based less on breed than fear, although the reaction to stimuli may be stronger in a more high-strung breed. She estimates that 75 percent of aggression cases are caused by fear.

“Fearful dogs are fearful because they lack the strong leadership at home, and they feel they have to be responsible for everything, protecting the home, food, owner...” Bell said. “If a dog feels like their owner is a strong leader, their fear dissipates.”

Bell points out that dog training is as much about training the owner as the dog. Through training, owners learn to communicate with their dogs and become “benevolent leaders,” as distinct from “dominating” their dogs with force. The role of the owner is to help the dog succeed by understanding how to communicate with it and motivate it to behave, Bell said.

“If you start to have expectations for the dog like a parent, the problems go away because you’re setting up a structure for the dog, so they learn to get reward or attention if they are polite and act appropriately,” she said.

While Bell trained dogs for competition for many of her 30 years of training, she switched her focus six years ago to companion dogs, who enjoy a fuller relationship with their owners and are less likely to become unwanted.

“Who cares if a dog can go into a ring and perform these exercises spot on, if you can’t take them off leash in your own back yard because you aren’t sure the dog will come back,” Bell said.

Good dog

“When we started out with Abby, I was less confident about how she’d be with other dogs, and when you’re nervous it sets a tone,” Michael said. “When you’re confident, she relaxes and the other dogs and owners relax.”

Training also keeps dogs out of shelters, where 3 million to 4 million cats and dogs are euthanized each year, according to the Humane Society of the U.S.

Melissa Byrd, adoption outreach coordinator for Kitsap Humane Society, says when people bring a family dog to the shelter, the most frequent reason given is that the dog is “too active” or the “puppy grew.”

That is, a 10-pound puppy was cute when it jumped on people, but as an 80-pound, untrained, grown-up dog, it is now knocking people over.

“It’s really sad,” Byrd said. “Some dogs (end up at KHS) because an untrained person didn’t put that effort into the dog.”

Taking classes or passing the Canine Good Citizen test is not mandatory, Byrd said, but training is and can be taught inexpensively using books and videos from the library and working for 10-15 minutes a day.

Over eight months, Michael worked the training into her daily routine with her dog. In January, Abby passed the test with flying colors, and Michael will keep her home insurance.

“I find if people have a goal to achieve, this is a really good way for a dog and trainer to get them to work toward it,” Bell said. “It will so enrich the life of the dog because they’ll be able to participate in every aspect of your life.”

* * * * *

Citizen Canine

In some countries, the equivalent of the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen certification will give dogs service-dog level access. To pass, the on-leash dog and its owner must:

1. Accept a friendly stranger.

2. Sit politely for petting.

3. Have a clean and well cared for appearance.

4. Walk on-leash without pulling.

5. Walk through a crowd but only show mild interest.

6. Sit and lie down on command and stay in place.

7. Come when called.

8. Show no more than mild interest when meeting another dog.

9. Remain confident around common distractions – e.g. a dropped chair or a crutch.

10. Show nothing stronger than mild agitation when separated from its handler.

Any dog that eliminates during the test (except for No. 10) or growls, snaps, bites or attacks fails automatically.

More information:

Canine Good Citizen test: www.akc.org/events/cgc/training_testing.cfm.

Beaujes Dog Training: 842-8537; www.beaujes.com

Kitsap Humane Society: www.kitsaphumane.org; (360) 692-6977.

* * * * *

Unsure of dogs

Northwest Insurance Council President Karl Newman, a 20-year veteran of the insurance industry, says that the trend to restrict coverage based on dog breed has been spurred in the last five years by high-profile dog maulings in the news.

Dog bite liability has been “taken more seriously...based on the analysis of claims data,” he said, and resulted in an increased number of breed-specific restrictions.

The Insurance Information Institute says that almost one-fourth of liability claims have been for dog bites, which cost the industry $321.6 million annually, and 50 percent of cases occur on a dog owner’s own property.

Liability claims make up 5 percent of homeowner/renter claims, Newman said, and dog-bite claims cost insurers $16,600 – on average, four times more than the average claim of $4,025 for liability and property damage.

Ross Thornburgh, owner of Bainbridge Island’s Thornburgh Insurance, says ironically, the only three dog-bite claims he has ever processed for Safeco Insurance in 25 years dealt with dogs that were not on the company’s restricted breed list.

On the other hand, he added, if you get a dog after you are insured and don’t tell the insurance company, it won’t know.

Wheels are turning in the state Legislature to prohibit insurers from withholding coverage based soley on the dog’s breed.

The bill, HB1016, passed the house in March 2005, but then stalled in the Senate.

One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Rep. Sherry Appleton (D-Poulsbo), said, “I don’t think you can be breed-specific, because a bad owner can make any dog bad and a good owner can make any aggressive dog into a mush pot.”

– Tina Lieu

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