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Insurance Man Bites Dog

Insurance companies are cracking down on owners of dogs deemed 'dangerous.'

Jim Feagins' relationship with his first Doberman pinscher, Hanz, was a close one. Always a dog owner, but never a Doberman owner, Feagins bought Hanz from a breeder in 1995 when the dog was a puppy.

"I didn't know much about Dobermans prior to getting Hanz," said Feagins, a Realtor living in Fairfax Station. "He … turned out to be the sweetest, gentlest animal I'd ever known, well-trained, well-behaved, a great pet."

Feagins also discovered something else about becoming a Doberman owner.

"I learned a lot more once I got him, and I think they just have a bad reputation," he said.

Dobermans are on the list of dogs developing a bad reputation from another source — insurance providers who are refusing to insure owners of 11 different breeds of dogs deemed "dangerous." And in Virginia, they are well within their legal rights to deny homeowners insurance to individuals based on the breed of dog they own.

"It's to ensure the proper pricing of individual homeowners policies. There's been an increase in liability claims related to dogs in the past 10 years," said Jennifer Wislocki, a spokesperson for St. Paul Travelers Companies, a major insurance provider based in Minnesota.

Feagins discovered this fact when he moved into a new home in Fairfax Station in December 2004. Travelers called to inform him an assessor would be coming to his house in January to determine the rebuild value of the house in order to adjust his homeowner's premiums. He had been with Travelers for over five years.

"I wasn't too concerned because they told me it was to assess the value to rebuild the house," said Feagins. "I didn't realize it was really kind of a spy, which is what it turned out to be."

By mid-January, Travelers sent Feagins a letter informing him his policy had been canceled, effective the end of the month. The reasons listed were, according to Feagins, the fact that his pool had no fence around it, his house was too far from a fire hydrant, and there was "a Doberman pinscher on the premises."

Feagins called to inform Travelers that the assessor had missed the fact that his pool was fenced, and that the fire company had said the fire hydrant was close enough in the event of a fire.

"(Travelers) said 'Well, you still have a Doberman, right?'" said Feagins. "And I said 'Yes,' and they said 'Well, we're very sorry.' What it boiled down to was that of the three reasons, it was really the Doberman was the reason I was canceled."

FEAGINS HAS owned Danke, a female Doberman, since May 2004, shortly after Hanz died. He said she has been trained and spends time regularly at area dog parks to socialize with other dogs.

"Any dog you need to train them and socialize them," he said.

Athy Conigliaro, president of Doberman Assistance Rescue and Education (DARE), considers insurance companies out of line in their treatment of Dobermans and their owners.

"I don't like it because I love my Doberman, and I should be allowed to have whatever breed of dog I want and have the option to purchase whatever insurance I want."

DARE, a non-profit based in Maryland, also serves Northern Virginia; Washington, D.C.; and West Virginia. Founded in 1998, the group sponsors training and education programs for Doberman owners and works with animal shelters to place neglected or abused Dobermans into stable homes. Conigliaro said her group serves as "matchmakers," making sure the dogs are healthy, spayed or neutered, and then placing them in "foster homes" until a suitable owner can be found. They average 100 rescues a year, she said, and in her experience, Dobermans are getting a bad rap.

"A truly vicious Doberman is not something I've run across yet," said Conigliaro. "What I have seen is dogs who are not properly trained, and don't know how to react when someone comes to the door. I've seen dogs who are temperamentally unreliable. If you have a poorly bred animal and he's in an abusive situation, that's a bad recipe there."

Feagins obtained both Danke and his current dog Sophie, through DARE, and said he wasn't expecting his insurance carrier to cancel him for having the dogs.

"I was shocked, and everyone I have told is shocked. Most people who know me and know my pets, they are doubly shocked," he said.

ACCORDING TO Wislocki, the main issue with Dobermans and other breeds of dogs, including Great Danes, pit bulls, rottweilers and even Siberian huskies — all banned — is liability.

"Like most insurance companies, Travelers has responded to the growing problem of liability claims related to dog bites by implementing new underwriting guidelines in most states that do not allow us to write new homeowners policies for people with (these) breeds of dogs, as well as those that exhibit vicious behavior or have previously bitten," she said.

Wislocki added that the new guidelines have been put in place within the past 10 years, to "avoid the situation where the majority are subsidizing the losses of a few."

Feagins said after his initial shock, he had no problem finding another company — in his case Farmers — which would take him on. He said another company, State Farm, told him they would insure him, but had a "one-bite" rule that allowed them to cancel his policy if his dogs were involved in a biting incident.

"I look at it this way, the insurance company lost my business," Feagins said. Nonetheless, he doesn't agree at all with the practice.

"The insurance companies are trying to stack the cards in their favor," said Feagins. "What's next? Anyone with a swimming pool will never get insurance, or anyone who has steps going up to their house gets canceled? How many things can they protect themselves against?"

Not all states allow such practices by insurance companies. The Maryland State Insurance Commission has outlawed the practice, called "breed profiling," and Conigliaro said she would be interested in seeing the topic raised in next year's Virginia General Assembly.

"Ban the deed, not the breed," she said. "I'd like to see it made illegal to treat differently an entire community because of the breed of dog they've chosen to own … . In the meantime, I'll refer Doberman owners to (insurance) companies who base what they do on the individual's behavior."