Officer loses home insurance due to K-9

Because it's trained to attack on command, company considers animal 'aggressive'

By Margery A. Beck
Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb.  — A Nebraska sheriff's deputy is being dropped by his home insurance company, who says the police dog he keeps at his Omaha home is a risk it is not willing to bear. And the head of the nation's largest police union warns American Family Insurance Co. to prepare to be shunned by its 325,000 members.

Douglas County Deputy Andy Woodward, 36, said he learned this summer after the insurance company conducted its annual inspection of his home that American Family was considering ending his homeowner's policy because he cares for his K-9, Diezel — considered an aggressive dog by the insurance company, because it's trained to attack on command.

Woodward said he informed his agent that the county carries liability insurance for the dog and thought the matter was settled. But American Family sent him a letter this month, informing him his policy would end on Dec. 19 "due to the additional liability exposure of your police dog," the document reads.

"It was just like a slap in the face," said Woodward, who is required by the sheriff's office to keep the 4-year-old Belgian Malinois at his home. "I'm going to get dropped from my home insurance for this?"

Steve Witmer, a spokesman for American Family, called the cancellation "an unfortunate misunderstanding," saying the company expected the deputy to provide confirmation that Douglas County held liability insurance on the dog.

Woodward is the fourth law enforcement officer in 33 years to have his homeowner's policy canceled because of the presence of a police dog, Witmer said. In all the cases, except for Woodward's, American Family continued coverage because proof of liability coverage on the K-9s was shown, he said.

Dropped coverage for dog ownership is rare, said Bruce Ramge, director of Nebraska Department of Insurance, only three complaints filed in Nebraska over the last 10 years.

"This is the first time I've heard of this occurring with a law enforcement officer," said Ramge, who noted American Family was "within their legal rights."

Witmer said American Family's underwriting guidelines list certain types of dogs as being ineligible for homeowners' insurance, including certain breeds deemed to be aggressive, such as Akitas, American pit bull terriers, chows, Rottweilers and any kind of wolf hybrid.

"We also will not sell a new policy to customers who own a trained guard dog or attack dog," said Witmer, noting that a police dog would fall under that definition. He also said American Family has no plans to drop coverage on every law enforcement officer who cares for a police dog.

The director of the National Fraternal Order of Police isn't swayed.

"We don't view it that way. They don't call us a union for nothing," Jim Pasco said. "The idea that they can cherry-pick among our members and decide who's worthy of their insurance based on whether they like the dog or not is at variance with common sense."

Pasco said this is the first time in his 46 years of law enforcement and union work he has heard of a K-9 officer losing his coverage because of keeping a police dog at home.

"You would think that insurers would want police officers with all of the equipment that they're provided with to protect individuals — whether its dogs or firearms or whatever — in the neighborhood," Pasco said.

Witmer, however, says dog bites account for the largest percentage of homeowners' liability claims, so American Family determined years ago that it would not write policies for owners of what the company considered to be dogs likely to bite.

"We look at it as not expecting other customers to subsidize people who chose to own aggressive dogs," Witmer said.

But Woodward said his drug-sniffing and patrol dog will attack only at his command and undergoes eight hours of training a week to keep him familiar with his commands and ensure that he's obedient.

"He knows that what I say goes, and he doesn't act on his own," Woodward said.

Asked if American Family would have retained Woodward's coverage if he had shown proof of liability coverage after receiving the Oct. 15 cancellation notice, Witmer said Wednesday that he wasn't sure.

"I don't know if at that point that it would have been possible," he said. Several hours later, Witmer released a statement saying that with documentation of Diezel's liability insurance, "we would have and will renew coverage."

"We care about Mr. Woodward and all law enforcement officers and are working to resolve this matter going forward," the statement said.

Woodward, however, won't be going back to American Family. He said he already has new coverage from a different company. And other law enforcement officers could soon follow suit, Pasco said.

"It's a quid pro quo world," he said. "I have two (Labrador retrievers), and the only thing I wish is that I had American Family Insurance so I could drop them."

Copyright 2012 Associated Press

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