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Dog Behaviorist, Insurance Expert Introduces Dog Bite Liability Policy

Posted on 14 Nov 12 by Annie George

It’s likely that the seed to become a champion for man’s best friend was planted in Deborah Turner years ago, when as a child she witnessed an act of animal abuse yet was powerless to stop it. Fast forward to today, when Turner has parlayed her love of dogs, a deep understanding of their behavior, and a background in insurance underwriting and advisory services into a new coverage that promises to pick up where many standard homeowners insurance policies leave off.

After exhaustive research in the subject, Turner developed the Covered Canine Policy, a low-cost dog bite liability insurance product that offers protection for dog owners in the event their dog bites an individual and causes harm. For a premium of as little as $75 annually per dog, policy limits range from $50,000-$100,000. In stark contrast to other policies, Covered Canine does not seek to exclude any particular type of dog; behavior – not the breed – is examined to determine suitability for coverage. This approach is central to Turner’s unique understanding of dog behavior that has turned underwriting this risk on its floppy ear.

Turner says that in past years, insurers have grown increasingly leery of insuring animal liability. For example, one major umbrella carrier went from a broad form to a following form for dog bite claims, thus excluding coverage under the umbrella for such claims if the protection was not covered under an insured’s homeowners policy; other carriers followed suit. Many insurers started excluding animal liability altogether from their homeowners policies, or focused on excluding certain breeds from liability coverage, mistakenly assuming that eliminating those breeds would eliminate the bites—but this has not been the case. What the insurance industry wasn’t keying on, Turner says, is that all dogs are animals that are capable of biting, which is the only defense a dog has in situations where it feels threatened. The same is true of working dogs, show dogs, service dogs, pampered pooches and family pets alike. She combined her extensive behavioral studies of dogs (she’s also on the faculty of an e-training site for dogs) with her vast insurance experience as a designated CPCU and AAI to document how characteristics of each individual dog should be the driving factor in insurance underwriting.

Turner took her breakthrough research to insurance companies, pointing out the flaws in traditional underwriting assumptions and shattering myths about “dangerous breeds” by offering real-world profiles that belie the myths. Case in point: Turner explains how a golden retriever can actually present a more likely dog bite risk than a pit bull, when considering a variety of circumstances that include the home environment, number of children in the house, age and sex of the dog, and its neuter/spay status.

Convinced by Turner’s extensive data, Great American Insurance Company agreed to underwrite the Covered Canine Policy, which is written on a surplus lines basis through the Federation of Insured Dog Owners, Inc. (F.I.D.O.), an offshoot of Turner’s principal business—a commercial lines agency in Altamonte Springs, Florida that specializes in commercial risks. Turner says she envisioned the Covered Canine Policy (currently available only in Florida) as the perfect solution for agents who offer homeowners insurance that limits or excludes dog bite claims. By directing their clients to F.I.D.O., agents can help them obtain this hard-to-find coverage at a very affordable cost, as well as protect themselves from E&O claims from homeowners who think their policies offer animal liability coverage and find out otherwise when an incident occurs.

Turner turned to a leading insurance marketing firm, California-based Neilson Marketing Services, to, as she puts it, “take her vision out of her head, and put it into the digital realm”. Neilson Marketing Services developed, a user-friendly online quote platform for F.I.D.O. members, where dog owners can self-rate their policy according to the dog’s breed, size and weight. Applicants answer questions that help assess risk factors such as whether any children reside in the home with the dog and whether the home has a fenced yard, and must upload a photo of their pet. The coverage does not seek to exclude any particular breed of dog, although some exclusions apply (such as dogs that have been trained for fighting or dogs that live chained in the yard). The policy covers bites to humans (rather than one dog biting another), and an option is available that extends coverage for attacks that occur when the dog is taken off-premises. The site has seen brisk traffic since its formal launch, with requests for quotes from across the country. In response to the overwhelming demand, Turner is working with state insurance regulators to make the Covered Canine Policy available nationally as soon as possible.

Providing access to dog bite liability coverage is only part of F.I.D.O.’s (and Turner’s) mission: the annual $50 membership fee to join F.I.D.O. will be used to fund a host of educational programs, support rescue groups, kennels at domestic abuse shelters, continued behavioral studies and research into medical assistance and therapy programs using dogs, and much more. Turner adds that exploring the recognized link between animal abuse and domestic violence and child abuse—and finding ways to halt these behaviors—is also one of F.I.D.O.’s primary missions.

Another major benefit that Turner hopes will come from the program is that with photos of the dog there may finally be an end to the question of Breed Selection since there will be statistical proof.  Mixed breeds can be covered but the picture should give an idea of the primary breed. 

Turner’s longtime fascination with dogs as everything from true friends and companions to therapists and lifesavers is as evident today as it was when she was a small girl. Her enduring passion, admiration, and dedication will help ensure greater understanding and appreciation of man’s best friend while providing a much-needed insurance product for dog owners.