During a pre-screening interview for homeowners insurance, Michael Richbourg of Atlanta was asked if he owned any dogs. He said he had two mixed breeds. He wasn't sure what kind, but one appeared to be mostly schipperke (pronounced, skipper-kee).
Hearing the breed, the agent quietly replied that he was unable to process Richbourg's application further.
The American Kennel Club describes a schipperke as an agile, active watchdog, curious and reserved with strangers. But Yourpurebredpuppy.com, a dog-breed information website, says they can become bored and express themselves by barking and destructive chewing.
Whichever description is correct, Richbourg appeared to be rejected because the insurer had blacklisted the small schipperke as a liability.
Where are insurance companies getting their lists of what they perceive to be "aggressive" dogs? Without knowing, it's difficult for home- and dog owners to discern which breeds are acceptable and which aren't.
As it turns out, there's no standard list insurance companies follow, but dogs can factor in when an insurer is reviewing your new customer application. And it's not just the breeds typically thought of as aggressive, such as pit bulls, Rottweilers, chow chows, Doberman pinschers and German shepherds.
"Insurance companies go by the average number of bites reported by a certain breed," says Ashley Hunter, owner and president of HM Risk Group, an insurance and risk management brokerage in Austin, Texas.
The Humane Society of the United States reports that the bite list changes from year to year and from one area of the country to another, depending on the popularity of the breed. Just a few years ago, the Doberman was the breed to fear. Now, pit bulls and Rottweilers rule, and the Presa Canario -- a breed few people had heard of in 2001 -- is sought by those wanting a "killer dog."
"In Lewis and Clark's day, it was the Newfoundland because that was the popular breed," says Ledy Van Kavage, senior legislative analyst for Best Friends Animal Society, a pet sanctuary and adoption network in Kanab, Utah. "Dogs, like people, are individuals and should be judged that way."
PEMCO Insurance, based in Seattle, underwrites each risk individually. Breed is only one factor. It also considers socialization and gender, whether the dog has been spayed or neutered, how the dog is confined and the owner's claims history.
The Journal of Applied Animal Behavior has reported that dachshunds, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell terriers are the most likely to bite. Another study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society put Labradors and golden retrievers in the high-risk category.
"The real problem is that there is so much conflicting information (about aggressive breeds), that you don't know what to believe," says Donna Popow, senior director of knowledge resources for The Institutes, a nonprofit offering insurance education in Malvern, Pa. "Any dog will bite, given the right set of circumstances."
But that doesn't mean homeowners with dogs should be denied insurance. "This is a knee-jerk reaction caused by public hysteria," Van Kavage says.
The latest statistics from the Insurance Information Institute, an industry association in New York, show that the average cost of a dog-bite claim nationwide was $26,166 in 2010, up 5.3 percent from 2009. In addition, dog bites account for one-third of all homeowner's claims.