Rupert the pit bull stands at the feet of his 2-year-old owner, calmly snorting up popcorn while the toddler yanks forcefully at the dog’s collar. Tai Wickline is pulling hard enough to elicit bulldog-like breathing from his 3-year-old canine.
“You trying to pull Rupie up the stairs?” coos his mother, Amanda Shippee, from the kitchen. “I think he’s busy with the popcorn.”
Despite the dog having never shown signs of aggression, Shippee said she and her fiance Brian Wickline — owner-operator of People’s Bread Company in Montague — were considering giving the dog up as they searched desperately for a home in Amherst that would allow the pit. “Nearly every landlord has rejected us because it would cause their insurance to go up,” said Wickline. “Even after meeting him.”
The family eventually found a home in Amherst after months of looking.
Many dog experts say policies targeting certain breeds are just stereotypes. Massachusetts passed a bill in 2012 illegalizing breed-specific laws, but that doesn’t prohibit insurance companies from incorporating breed restrictions into their underwriting for homeowners’ insurance. Senate Bill 501, sponsored by Sen. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, could change that. Currently, those with commonly blacklisted dogs — pit bulls, German shepherds, dobermans, and mastiffs are included on the list of as many as 21 breeds, depending on the company — find it difficult to avoid paying as much as double the standard premium, if they can buy coverage at all.
Northampton Liberty Mutual insurance agent Mark LaVallee said that while his company does have a “naughty dog” list, he can still write the insurance with an override provided an in-person meeting with a so-called naughty dog goes smoothly.
Hawley resident Ashley Harrison said that even though one such meeting with her KSK Insurance agent went great — the agent even took a selfie face-to-face with Harrison’s Portuguese fila, Brockway — Vermont Mutual still declined to insure her.
As soon as she mentioned she had a dog, said Harrison, there was more paperwork to fill out. She didn’t even consider Brockway would be an issue because he’s so well-behaved. But the breed, it turns out, was flagged in the insurance company’s system.
“I was really mad about it,” said Harrison, adding that she has a lab who doesn’t listen as well, and “he’s the one that’s ok” in the insurance company’s eyes. She would have been paying around $600, she said, but now she pays $1,100 with Phoenix Insurance Group. “We were just in the process of buying our first house and I was like, wait a minute — this is so unfair.”
Some companies, like Allstate, approve all breeds. The new legislation, if passed, would force all insurance companies in Massachusetts to operate the same way — they would not be able to deny coverage or charge higher premiums to owners of certain breeds. Insurance companies could, however, still decline to cover or charge more for insuring a dog already designated dangerous through local statutes.
“The blanket prohibition based on a breed to me is almost analogous to saying ‘I’m not going to insure anyone with a red Porsche because they’re more likely to get pulled over for speeding,’” said John Scibak, D-South Hadley, who’s co-sponsoring the bill along with local Rep. Peter Kocot, D-Northampton. “I’d like to see the data that shows that every particular dog within a specific breed presents a real tangible risk or danger.”
To that last point, the bill would require all dog bites to be reported to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which would compile the data (including breed information) and make it available to insurers.
According to Sen. Gobi’s legislative director, Henry Kahn, a public hearing was held on Nov. 10, and the Committee on Financial Services is charged with making a decision on what happens next with the bill by the third week in March. “There’s still a ways to go,” Kahn said.
Genevieve Brough, owner of Finck and Perras Insurance in Easthampton, said that while she sees both sides of the issue, it’s an insurance company’s job to insure risk, and certain breeds pose a certain degree of risk.
“Not every dog of one of these breeds is aggressive — it’s hard to paint them with a broad brush,” said Brough, who works with “several” of the more than 50 companies that provide homeowners insurance in Massachusetts. “But there are certain reasons why there are these rules.”
The breed specifications, Brough said, emerged over the past 20 years because of financial losses paid out.
Brough said that each company’s guidelines are different and are calculated based on losses. Certain companies, for example, won’t cover homes with trampolines and others won’t cover homes with underground pools with diving boards. “The dog question is one of many,” she explained.
If all else fails, said Brough, homeowners can always get homeowners insurance through the state. The FAIR Plan, said Brough, was created in 1968 for coastal homeowners so prone to flooding and damage that insurance companies didn’t want to touch them. According to Brough, insurance under the FAIR Plan costs about $300 more than under other plans.
Kara Holmquist, director of advocacy at the MSPCA, said that while the FAIR Plan is certainly a recourse, it can be prohibitively expensive. She said that the legislation passed in 2012 was a great start, but there’s more to do. “Even if cities and towns don’t discriminate,” said Holmquist, “there’s still that major barrier and families are still being torn apart.”
Chris Goetcheus, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Division of Insurance, declined to comment on the division’s position on the legislation.
When families are torn apart, the dogs often end up in a rescue or a shelter.
Lee Chambers, marketing and communications manager for Dakin Humane Society, said chihuahuas and pit bulls are the organization’s usual suspects. She said that housing issues are a leading reason dogs are brought to the shelter.
“We do have a significant number of pet surrenders come to our door because of housing issues,” Chambers said. “They encounter that resistance so unfortunately that’s part of the landscape here.”
Tessa Riga, operations manager at Thomas J. O’Connor Animal Control and Adoption Center in Springfield, said the organization takes in about 1,700 stray dogs a year and that, “because of the demographic,” the majority of them are pit bulls. She said the center has no way of tracking why these animals are put out onto the street, but the bill would make it easier to find homes for them. Current insurance policies, she said, are “an inhibitor for people who are willing and want to bring a pit bull or bully-type dog into their home but aren’t able to because of those restrictions.”
Pit bulls are especially problematic when it comes to breed-specificity because so many of them are mixed breeds with varying degrees of staffordshire terrier or pit bull terrier in their makeups.
“Most pit bulls are mutts and what we call pitty-type dogs,” said Kelley Bollen, owner and director of Animal Alliances in Northampton. “It’s more of a phenotype than a genotype, so it’s more about the way they look than what their genetics are.”
That’s a major reason why, said Holmquist, the practice is discriminatory. Proponents of breed-based policies argue that genetics play too strong of a role to ignore, but because so many of the bully-type dogs are mixes, it becomes a hunt for the dogs with the “boxiest heads.”
The experts argue that statistics that show pit bulls at the top of bite lists don’t take into account the heavy, unregulated overbreeding and sheer prevalence of the breed. In this way, Holmquist said, popular breeds can skew the data.
Additionally, Norine Ford, founder and executive director of the PittieLove rescue outside of Boston, says pit bulls are heavily stereotyped because of media hype. “If a pit bull bites a child we’ll all hear about it,” says Ford. “If a lab bites a child, we might only hear about it within that one town.”
Ford says that her organization, which takes pit bulls from all over the state — with the highest numbers coming in from Lawrence, Springfield, Fall River, and inner-city Boston — said the bill would do much to decrease her numbers.
“I think it would have a huge impact — I wouldn’t be getting all these requests,” said Ford, adding that the small rescue sees far more applicants than it can take in. “Shelters are packed full of pit bulls.”
Pit bulls and other guarding breeds like German shepherds and rottweilers appear at the top of insurance companies’ lists.
“The guarding breeds are more likely to be protective,” said Bollen. “And while they’re protecting their territory they can show aggressive behavior, but that doesn’t mean they’ll all exhibit those behaviors, and that’s the problem with breed-specific regulations.”
Carl Herkstroeter, president of the American Temperament Test Society, said he’s conducted temperament tests on about 10,000 dogs. He told the Advocate that contrary to common belief, the 1,000 or so pit bull type dogs he tested were among the nicest. The little ones, he said, were the biggest bite offenders. And he said the key to managing protective breeds is through schutzhund — specialized training that allows owners to manage those behaviors like the flick of a switch.
Protective behavior, Bollen adds, is why humans and dogs bonded in the first place.
“All dogs have the potential to be territorial,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons we domesticated the dogs — so that they could alert us to any dangers.”
Leah and Sergio Caldieri, who I found at the Northampton dog park with their young mutt Zefiro, said breed-specific rules are discriminatory. Caldieri said dogs should be judged on their personalities and not how they look. “That’s like racism for dogs,” said Leah Caldieri, owner of Charon Art in Turners Falls.
Their little black pup bounces around the path. There may be a little staffordshire terrier in his makeup, the couple said, but they’re not sure. “We don’t tell people about the pit bull part,” she said.
I heard from a number of dog owners who admitted to intentionally concealing information from their insurance companies in order to protect their pups. Most of these people declined to go on-record.
“People lie anyway,” said Gary, whom I met taking a stroll at the park with his son’s pit bull. He said the dog lives with him and he’s told his insurers the dog is a “terrier mix.” In reality, that’s likely a relatively truthful statement — purebred pit bulls are called either staffordshire terriers or pit bull terriers — but still Gary is scared to call him a pit bull on the record. I can’t say I blame him. “He’s a giant love-muscle,” he said of the dog, who bounds around the path joyfully greeting other dogs while his owner chats. “I shouldn’t have to lie.”•
Contact Amanda Drane at email@example.com.