Liability insurance for dogs, like cars

“Maybe dogs should be treated like cars. Ownership should require liability insurance because of the
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“Maybe dogs should be treated like cars. Ownership should require liability insurance because of the potential danger to others.”

So wrote a correspondent to this newspaper, reacting to recent attacks by pit bulls on mail carriers and other innocents in the city of Schenectady, and I must say it struck me as an interesting idea.

In fact it has always puzzled me how easy it is to own a dog, given the great nuisance that they often are and the great danger that they occasionally are.

Any municipality of any size has to employ an animal control officer to chase after animal complaints, almost all of which concern dogs.

A few years ago I checked the records of Schenectady for a nine-month period and found that out of 1,787 animal-control calls, 1,701 were for dogs, which was no surprise. I just wanted to be sure.

They were for pit bulls, and sometimes other types, chasing people, biting people, running loose, growling, menacing and so on.

Nevertheless, any idiot, any criminal, any psychopath can keep one. Or more than one, depending on the municipality.

In Schenectady you can own up to three. In Albany up to five. In Saratoga Springs there is no limit, and one socially prominent citizen had 32 at last report and was pleased enough to commission a coffee-table book about them, though of course those are not the kinds of dogs that chase mail carriers and maul women on their way to an ATM late at night. Those are the kinds with ribbons in their hair.

All you have to do is pay a nominal license fee ($13.50 in Schenectady for a spayed or neutered animal, $20.50 for unspayed or unneutered), or if you don’t want to do that, don’t bother, since the chances of your being caught are remote and the consequences trivial even if you do get caught.

Just get a puppy from a neighbor, and you’re all set.

It’s odd, isn’t it. About 1,000 Americans a day are treated in emergency rooms as a result of dog bites, according to the website dogbitelaw.com. Most of them are children, most bitten in the face. Thirty-four people were killed last year by dogs.

If you want a hunting license, you have to take a 10-hour hunter-safety course and demonstrate that you know the barrel of a gun from the butt. Why? Because guns are dangerous.

If you want a driver’s license, you have to take a driving test and demonstrate that you know forward from reverse. Same reason. Cars are dangerous. Also the DMV instructs you that driving is a privilege, not a right.

But there is no training course and no test required for owning a dog, and any jerk can own one, without challenge, the assumption being that it’s a right.

You don’t even have to take a written test in basic etiquette, like, don’t leave your dog howling in your backyard all day while you’re away at work, or teach your dog not to jump on people.

Liability insurance wouldn’t address those common everyday nuisances, but it would address the extreme problem of a dog seriously injuring someone, and in the long run I suppose it would discourage people, or at least poor people, from owning breeds with a history of aggression, like pit bulls and Rottweilers, which between them accounted for more than half of all fatal attacks in the last survey done of the problem.

It would discourage them because insurance companies, realists that they are, charge more to insure pit bulls and Rottweilers and other big dogs with histories of aggression than to insure smaller dogs with more peaceful histories.

One agency that will sell you liability insurance is the Lester Kalmanson Agency, based in Florida. It says on its website, “If your dog is powerful and is on the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] list of dogs that bite, but your dog has not bitten anyone, then expect to pay under $1,000 per year for coverage up to $100,000, with a deductible of $1,500.” Which is quite a hit, and even that covers you only if your dog injures someone on your own premises. Out on the street, all bets are off.

“If your dog has bitten someone and is on the CDC list, then expect to pay more than $1,000 per year, if you can get insurance at all,” the agency says.

So if a city like Schenectady required such insurance and wouldn’t issue a license without it, and if it really went after dogs without licenses, that would be bound to have an effect, since I doubt if many of the dudes you see on the street with pit bulls could come up with a $1,000 premium every year.

True, some insurance agencies are a little more encouraging. The Einhorn agency, based in California, says, “Even if a dog has a history of aggression, we can help,” and advertises, “We help keep families together,” apparently counting a dog as a family member, “and sympathize with the unfair discrimination that other responsible dog owners face.”

They didn’t return my call inquiring how much they charge for their coverage, though I don’t see how it can be cheap, sympathy or no sympathy.

Either way, it would be a practical discouragement to the kind of rampant running of pit bulls that we see on the streets of Schenectady and other cities, where pit bulls are a kind of badge of toughness.

And it would circumvent our state’s prohibition of “breed-specific” rules. The beloved free market would determine how much it costs to insure a pit bull versus a beagle, and the municipality would remain neutral on that question. It would simply require $300,000 worth of liability insurance for any breed, which is the amount recommended by dogbitelaw.com.

So if your pet ripped the ears off a woman walking down the street, as recently happened in Schenectady, an insurance company would cover the damage, just as an insurance company would cover the damage if you injured somebody with your car.

You need liability insurance to register your car. Why not the same for a dog? (Why not the same for a gun too? Though that’s a question for another day.)

Categories: Opinion

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