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By keeping your dog in line you can prevent your insurance company from taking an extra bite out of your wallet -- or potentially withdrawing coverage altogether.

Once you're in a home and you've got your homeowners insurance policy, chances are you feel secure that you'll be financially protected if you ever encounter a fire, a burglary, or a busted pipe that floods your bathroom. But you better be sure your dog is in line -- if he bites anyone you could lose your insurance or face a premium increase.

Dog bites account for one-third of all liability claims stemming from homeowners insurance policies, according to the Insurance Information Institute, a non-profit, non-lobbying association. Insurance companies paid out about $310 million in property and casualty liability claims in 2000, according to Alejandra Soto, spokesperson for III. In 1996, the figure was about $250 million.

"The primary reason for the increase is higher jury awards and increased medical costs," Soto said.

Dog bite treatment payments are typically higher than average emergency room visits because of the ragged nature of the cuts, infection risk, and the large number of bites that require rabies treatment, according to the Center for Violence and Injury Control.

The insurance industry has adopted the view held by many veterinarian groups that the rate of dog biting is not related to specific breeds of dogs. However, the severity of the bite has a direct correlation with particular types of dogs. In other words, all dogs probably do the same amount of biting, but the bigger breeds are more likely to do more damage.

The purebreds responsible for the greatest number of dog bite-related fatalities from 1979 to 1998, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are pit bull, rottweiler, German shepherd, husky, malamute, Doberman pinscher, chow, Great Dane and Saint Bernard.

About 10 to 20 people die of dog bites each year, but an estimated 4.7 million -- 2 percent of the U.S. population - are bitten by a dog during a one-year period, according to the CDC. About 800,000 seek medical care; more than half of the dog bite victims are children, who are most frequently bitten in the face, neck and head area.

In addition, most dog bites are reported to have occurred in or near the owner's home, according to the Center for Violence and Injury Control.

"Most of the insurance companies now issue coverage on a case-by-case basis," Soto said. "Many now have a one-bite rule." That means once a homeowner is sued over a dog bite, the insurance company will either exclude the dog from future coverage, or drop the policy altogether.

Some companies are now asking for dog bite history and an in-person inspection of the dog and its surroundings is part of some companies' home inspection process, Soto said.

There are some things you can do to lessen the chance that your dog will bite, including:

  • Spay or neuter your dog. This will make the job of confining your dog easier because your pet's desire to roam and fight with other dogs will be lessened. Spayed or neutered dogs are three times less likely to bite.
  • Make sure your dog is social. Being around different types of people and situations will alleviate your dog's nervousness under normal social circumstances.
  • Train your dog. This, too, will help socialize the animal. The whole family should participate and learn all the techniques involved. Also, this is something you should do personally by accompanying your dog at the training class -- your dog will only take guidance from you once you're in your home.
  • Don't encourage inappropriate behavior. Stay away from rough play and set limits on your dog's behavior. If your dog exhibits dangerous behavior -- toward a person or another animal -- go see your veterinarian immediately. Unsafe behavior toward other animals may lead to risky behavior toward people.
  • Be responsible. License your dog and make sure your pet sees a veterinarian regularly. A dog should be a member of your family and exposed to social settings. Dogs who spend a lot of time alone outside or tied on a chain are much more prone to bite.
  • Always err on the side of safety. If you don't know how your dog will react to a new situation, be cautious. If your dog sometimes panics in crowds, leave him at home. If your dog overreacts to visitors or delivery or service personnel, keep him in another room. Work with professionals to help your dog become accustomed to these and other situations. Until you are confident of his behavior, however, avoid stressful settings.

Because children are the most frequent victims of dog bites, take extra care to ensure your child is never alone with a dog. Also, teach young children to be careful and cautious around pets, especially unfamiliar animals.

Michele Dawson is a free-lance writer who specializes in housing and real estate trends. She is based in Sacramento, California.

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