MUNCIE, Ind. – Brad Reinke opened a letter last month from an insurance underwriting specialist and learned he had seven months to find a new home for his family's pit bulls or lose his home insurance.
"Due to a potential liability hazard, the aggressive dog should be removed from the premises," the letter from Shelter Insurance Companies read. "No aggressive dog or aggressive breed of dog should replace this dog."
Such ultimatums are not uncommon for home owners who have what insurance companies deem "dangerous dog" breeds.
Dog bites accounted for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance liability claims paid out in 2012, costing more than $489 million, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III). There were 16,459 dog bite claims last year. The average cost of settling those claims was $29,752.
Reinke believes his insurance agency jumped to conclusions about his pit bull, however, based on what an underwriter saw through a window and what she heard: barking.
"We've been here for five of the seven years that we've had this company insure our house," Reinke, a highway technician at the Indiana Department of Transportation, told The Star Press (http://tspne.ws/19AurOR). "I don't see how they can say they're aggressive when they've never met the dogs. This is pretty much discriminating against the breed, pretty much stereotyping the breed through the window."
Insurance agency officials don't disagree there is a bias, but say that's based on past experience.
When Reinke's mother, Jana, a co-signer on her son's mortgage, visited Shelter Insurance agent Joshua Aber in Muncie, she accused him of being discriminatory toward pit bulls. "Yes, I am," she quoted him as saying. "That's exactly what he said."
Aber told The Star Press that excluding aggressive breeds of dogs from homeowners' coverage is common in the insurance industry, and has been for decades.
"If anyone in town knows you have a pit bull, no one is going to insure it unless you have a separate liability policy that you can buy for those breeds," Aber said. "I don't sell it."
However, before he could help the Reinkes find a broker who would sell them a stand-alone liability insurance policy for the dogs, "she threw the letter at me and called us dog racists," Aber told The Star Press. "I couldn't help her because she didn't want to be helped. We're here to help people. That letter was meant for them to get coverage for those dogs somewhere else so they don't have a gap in their policy."
Pit bulls are not a common dog for homeowners, according to Aber.
"I have a thousand homeowner policies," he said. "If 1 percent have pit bulls, that's probably pretty accurate. People who live in tenant property, non-owner occupants, have pit bulls. A lot of times, they end up at the pound and get adopted by people who are more responsible. It is what it is. Some people are fans of the dog and seek it out."
Aber said he has no reason to doubt the Reinkes are responsible dog owners.
"There are people who love this breed and think it can be saved and rehabilitated," he said. "I'm not here to say it can't, but I offer a product that has rules with it."
Some insurance companies don't want to insure pit bulls or other dogs they consider high risk, said Insurance Information Institute Vice President Loretta Worters.
"It really depends on the company how they handle what are considered aggressive dogs," she told The Star Press. "Some companies who have had large losses from certain breeds will not insure them. Some companies will have what's called a 'one bite rule.' If your dog bites someone, the company will pay for the occurrence, but then either will cancel the insurance or may exclude the dog from the policy, so if the dog bites someone again, the homeowner will be liable."
Other insurers look at each dog individually and do not judge based on breed, Worters added.
"They are aware that even normally docile dogs may bite when they are frightened or when defending their puppies, owners or food," she said. "The most dangerous dogs are those that fall victim to human shortcomings such as poor training, irresponsible ownership and breeding activities that foster viciousness."
Neither of Reinke's dogs has ever bitten anyone.
"They're not even remotely close to being aggressive," Reinke said of Lexi, a white female rescue dog whom he sent to obedience school as a condition of adopting her, and Tito, a black male with a white streak on his face and a white chest.
When The Star Press visited Reinke's home, both dogs barked, sniffed and wanted attention for a minute or two before calming down and posing for photographs. Lexi seemed lazy, and sat on Reinke's lap.
When he let the dogs out in the front yard unrestrained, they didn't leave the property. Tito played fetch with a tennis ball.
Some insurance companies would take that into consideration when deciding coverage, but they don't have to, which was the case with the Reinke's insurance provider.
State Farm Insurance, which insures one out of every four homes in Indiana, asks each potential customer whether or not their dog has bitten anyone, said spokeswoman Missy Dundov.
"Based on that answer and possible follow-up answers, we then determine if they qualify for homeowners insurance," she said. "We do not require a stand-alone liability policy. Either they qualify for our homeowners policy or do not."
State Farm alone had 3,670 dog bite claims nationally last year and paid more than $108 million as a result. Among the top 10 states for dog bite claims in 2012 for State Farm was Indiana, coming in at seventh, one spot ahead of Florida.
Man's best friend bites more than 4.7 million a year, according to the American Veterinary Association, the U.S., Postal Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Each year, 800,000 Americans seek medical attention for those bites.
Shelter Insurance has given the Reinkes until April to remove the dogs, which the couple have no intention of doing. Brad Reinke said he planned to start shopping around for a new policy after the first of the year.
This is an AP Member Exchange story shared by The Star Press.