By Pam Cyran
When Sam Falkoff moved from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, he didn’t think he’d be neck-deep in paperwork and without homeowners’ insurance. Furthermore, he never thought his beloved dog, Nena, would be the problem.
Nena is a 4-year-old pit bull and pointer mix. Falkoff adopted her when she was 20 months old.
Last July, Falkoff, a computer consultant, moved to his mother’s home in Watertown. A few months had passed when Falkoff was browsing the American Kennel Club (AKC) Federation website and noticed that the AKC indicated it’s difficult to get homeowner’s insurance if you own certain a certain breed of dog. Pit bull is one of them.
Falkoff decided to do the right thing and call his insurance company, Commerce Insurance, to tell them he had a dog that was part pit bull.
“My assumption was, even if they were totally biased against pit bulls, they would say, ‘we won’t cover you if she bites something,’” said Falkoff. “Not ‘we’ll cancel your entire homeowner’s policy,’ but that’s what they did.”
Falkoff’s mother had been a Commerce Insurance customer through Berry Insurance in Franklin for over a decade, acquiring various discounts along the way. That all ended when Falkoff and his mother were issued a cancellation notice in mid-February.
Berry Insurance, who also deals with Safety Insurance Group, confirmed they do not insure any homes with pit bulls, said the receptionist who declined to give her name for privacy concerns. She added that it is not their policy, but a Commerce specific policy that they follow. It’s the same for Safety as well, she said.
After calling the Commerce 800-number, an underwriter also confirmed that pit bulls are on a company-prohibited list with over 10 other breeds, including akita, doberman, and German shepherd. She stated it is company policy, regardless of agents’ opinions of the breeds mentioned.
Falkoff only had 30 days to find a company to write him a new policy. A task that he soon discovered was not easy.
“Liberty Mutual flat out said, ‘no, we don’t insure households where pit bulls live,’” said Falkoff, who called the company’s customer service 800-number.
Glenn Greenberg, a spokesperson for Liberty Mutual, could not speak on behalf of the individual conversation between Falkoff and the customer service agent.
“We don’t solely deny insurance coverage based on dog breed,” said Greenberg. “We do however look at certain breeds of dogs as a group based on their loss history for insurance acceptability.” Greenberg said that data comes from the Insurance Information Institute.
Falkoff called a number of insurance companies and did not receive good news.
According to a Progressive customer service agent, they cannot write policies to any homeowner who owns a pit bull type dog. Pit bulls and pit mixes are on their aggressive dog list. Customer service agents from Travelers and All State said the same thing. In an email response, the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company declined to answer whether or not it insures homes with pit bulls.
State Farm though, according to a 2010 press release does insure homes with pit bulls. However, Falkoff noticed they aren’t accepting new customers. According the State Farm website, “State Farm does not actively market new business in Massachusetts and Rhode Island at this time.”
Farmers Insurance also does not accept new customers in Massachusetts.
Falkoff’s struggle to find an insurance company willing to insure his pit bull home is not uncommon.
“It’s a problem for a lot of people in a lot of states, it’s something we hear about weekly,” said Sarah Sprouse, legislative analyst at the AKC headquarters in Raleigh, N.C. “I go through emails every week from people that say ‘I can’t find insurance for my German shepherd, pit bull, rottweiler,’ whatever, I can’t get homeowner’s insurance because I own these breeds.”
The AKC used to keep a list of insurance companies that would and would not insure certain dog breeds. However, the issue grew to be unmanageable. “Some companies will update dangerous breed lists every year, and sometimes it varies state by state, based on a claim happened in a previous year,” said Sprouse. “If they had a claim that a chihuahua bit a neighbor and it ended up being an extensive claim, they might refuse to insure chihuahuas the next year.”
The problem is much more agent specific than company specific, said Sprouse. Many insurance agents operate as independent contractors and can decide what they want to write or not write. Essentially, even if a specific company has a policy that prohibits breed specific discrimination, individual agents can pick and choose what homes for which they will write a policy. However, Sprouse said not all agents are independent contractors, and those do have to abide by company policy.
And so the AKC’s list of insurance companies was changing far too often to help people. “It was so inconsistent and it was so frustrating for so many of our folks that we just realized…what we had intended to help people and make the process simpler, was not creating that,” said Sprouse The list was taken down some time in 2005, and yet the frustration still exists for people like Fakoff.
The only insurance company that said they might insure Falkoff was Amica. “Amica was our only hope,” he said.
Falkoff spoke to an agent based in Rhode Island, but before the woman agreed to it, someone would have to meet the dog. Two weeks later, an agent came and met Nena. Falkoff was told Nena was not the problem, but the trees were. They were growing too close to the house. Falkoff spent a few hundred dollars to get the trees trimmed and sent the pictures to Amica. His efforts didn’t do any good. He never heard from Amica for a week.
On March 18, Falkoff calls the Amica 800-number for Massachusetts. An agent read over his current file and ultimately said they would not offer him coverage. Falkoff’s only options at that point was either join the Mass FAIR Plan for high-risk customers, which was too costly for Falkoff and his mother, or get rid of Nena, something Falkoff was definitely not willing to do.
“It was frustrating how much time I had to invest,” said Falkoff. “It seemed like everything was going great, and all of a sudden it felt like the rug was pulled out from under me when they said no we won’t insure you.”
Falkoff asked if a supervisor could call him back in order to explain his situation. To Amica’s credit, the very next day one did, said Falkoff. Falkoff explained that Nena has never bitten anyone, and she was currently in a local training course to test for her Canine Good Citizen (CGC) certification. The AKC sponsored program “stresses responsible pet ownership for owners and basic good manners for dogs,” according to the AKC website.
After a few back-and-forth phone calls to finalize the details – including requiring Nena to obtain her CGC – Amica confirmed they would write a policy for Falkoff and his mother effective March 21, less than 24 hours from when the Commerce policy became invalid.
Certified Pet Dog Trainer Melissa McCue-McGrath, said the CGC gives people a goal in their dog training.
“By getting a CGC, you are saying that your dog can handle 10 common behaviors: Sit to be pet, handle being brushed by a stranger, walking through a crowd without lunging at people, pass by another dog/human handler team without incident, not be too startled by distractions, sit/down/stay, and come when called,” said McCue-McGrath. “The dog also has to be able to be passed off to another person with the owner out of sight for three minutes without showing signs of distress.”
The Somerville resident works for the New England Dog Training Club (NEDTC), which holds classes every Thursday at the Cambridge Armory from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.. The pictures below show Nena training for her CGC certification.
“[The CGC] is a good way to start seeing if your dog can listen in a distracting environment,” said McCue-McGrath.
The time it takes for a dog to their CGC varies, but Nena is moving exceptionally fast, according to McCue-McGrath. Nena will most likeky have hers in less than three months, which is not very common. Some dogs have been training since they were puppies and are now reaching their second birthday, said McCue-McGrath.
“She’s the calmest dog in the room,” said McCue-McGrath.
“When you meet Neena, she’s so gentle, so friendly. She’s great with kids, and good with other animals except the ones she likes to chase,” said Falkoff. “Can’t blame a dog for chasing squirrels and rabbits. But that might be the pointer in her, not the pit bull.”
Falkoff said he’s changed a lot of people’s minds about their perception of bully breeds. “But the insurance companies, you can’t change their mind. They’ve got some rules, they may be completely arbitrary, but we can’t change them,” said Falkoff. “Unless, hopefully, the state gets involved.”
And the Commonwealth is.
The Massachusetts Federation of Dog Clubs Responsible Dog Owners has filed House Bill 918, sponsored by Rep. Anne Gobi from Spencer, Mass. If passed, it would prohibit insurance companies from discriminating in policies based on breed. Rep. Gobi could not be reached for comment, as she was away in Texas.
Holly Sheltry, legislative specialist for the federation and AKC member, said whether a dog can be insured should be determined case by case.
“People moving, buying houses, selling houses, are having to give up their dogs because they have no options,” said Sheltry. “A large portion end up in the shelter because people are moving and selling their house, and can’t get insurance.”
Rep. Jonathon Hecht from Watertown also put his name on the bill after becoming more aware of breed discrimination during his work on Gov. Deval Patrick’s animal control bill.
Among other things, Patrick’s bill, passed August 2, 2013, prohibits towns and cities in Massachusetts from passing ordinances for specific breeds alone.
“There’s a strong parallel between that and this practice of insurance companies of either raising their rates or refusing to give you coverage based on breed alone,” said Hecht.
Hecht said insurance agencies should to go beyond the scope of breed and look at the behavior and history of the particular animal.
“Sam’s example is a good one of a dog he had had for a number of years and has never caused any trouble…and he had a record of being a renter in another location where there were absolutely no problems with the dog,” said Hecht.
Besides saving people from having to go through the trouble that Falkoff went through, Hect believes the proposed bill would encourage more responsible dog ownership.
“It actually means we’re giving an incentive to people that own dogs to make sure that they treat them well, they train them well, they do all the certain things that a good dog owner should do to make sure that their dogs are happy and healthy and well-behaved,” said Hecht.
If the bill passes, Massachusetts will be the third sate in the U.S. to prohibit insurance companies from raising rates or denying coverage based on breed alone. Michigan and Pennsylvania are currently the only states to have such a law.
This is the third time the bill has been filed. Whether anything will happen this time around is unclear. The bill is currently in the Joint Committee on Financial Services.