Is Your Dog a Good Citizen? You'd Better Hope So, for Insurance's Sake

A good friend of mine was in tears when her insurance agent told her he would not renew her homeowner policy. The reason? Her newest family member, a German shepherd named Moxie, whom the company had deemed a "dangerous breed" -- the dogs can potentially be territorial and overly protective (hey, they're shepherds, right?). To solve the problem, the agent laid out a couple of crazy suggestions: Bring the dog to an animal shelter or -- this is true -- have the animal put down.

Thankfully, those weren't her only options. While we know that some insurance companies discriminate against what they think of as dangerous breeds, like Rottweilers, Dobermans, American pit bull terriers, and mastiffs, some savvy homeowners have found ways around the problem. They might look for different insurance companies, hoping -- usually in vain -- that they'll say yes and offer a reasonable rate. Others will find companies that require homeowners and renters with breed-specific dogs to purchase liability insurance in addition to homeowner insurance. But there is another way.

Get that doggie a diploma, save some dough

A less costly option is to get your canine certified as a good citizen, by way of enrolling it in obedience training classes that prove you've got a well-mannered pup at the end of your leash. The American Kennel Club started its Canine Good Citizen Program in 1989 to reward dogs that had good manners in their homes and in their communities. The dogs go through a six-week training program, then take a 10-step test, showing they can be polite to strangers, come when called, and play nice with other dogs, among other fine behaviors. There is no official test for peeing on the rug, alas, but your dog passes only if it refrains from barking, whining, or pacing nervously.

This seems to be particularly favorable with homeowners association, co-op, and condo boards, according to Loretta Worters, vice president of communications for the Insurance Information Institute. "Many insurance agents will accept certificates from AKC's Canine Good Citizen Program and other dog training programs," says Worters.

Andrea Arden of Andrea Arden Dog Training in New York City has seen an uptick in clients requesting diplomas or letters that they give to their co-op or condo boards (she can't explain the uptick, but maybe it's because of a savvier dog-loving constituency). Arden and her staff meet with clients to tailor the training around specific behaviors that need correcting -- like barking, separation anxiety, or destroying stuff in the house. There won't be any fighting, biting, growling, or taking food from your hands (without an owner's blessing, that is). And: no barking.

In fact, some buildings won't let a dog in without the CGC certificate. "Some rental agencies are requiring that dogs in apartments receive CGC training and pass the test," says Mary R. Burch, director of the AKC's Canine Good Citizen Program.

Tanner Place in Portland, OR, requires pet parents to present a copy of the CGC certificate showing that the dog has passed the test. According to Burch, it also shows the dedication on the part of the dog owner. "Insurance companies tell us Canine Good Citizen training is as much of a screening tool for owners as it is for dogs," she says. "When someone takes the time to attend training classes, train the dog, and take a test, they are usually someone who cares about that dog and will behave responsibly to protect it."

Though your insurance rates might not skyrocket as much, there is a fee. On average, CGC classes are about $100 for six weeks of training, though the cost varies across instructors and geographical areas. Other dog training programs vary in cost and training time. Private lessons, tailored to the owner and the dog, cost more, of course.

Not every canine needs a diploma

Lest you think all pit bulls and German shepherds have to be certified or sent to a shelter for you to save money, there are some exemptions. According to Rebecca Huss, professor of law at Valparaiso University in Indiana, insurers are not allowed to discriminate against specific breeds -- if that dog works as a service animal.

"In 2011, the Department of Justice revised the Americans with Disabilities Act to cover dogs considered service animals," Huss says. A service dog is trained to help people with disabilities -- seeing-eye dogs, those who help the deaf and hearing-impaired as well as people who use a wheelchair.

Still it's a confusing issue for many people, because not everyone knows what a service dog looks like. It used to be a golden retriever, Labrador retriever, and German shepherd. Today, service dogs can include mixed breeds, American pit bull terriers, Dobermans, Rottweilers, and other breeds that fall under the list of dogs that are often discriminated against.

To complicate matters further, the number of emotional support animals, which can range from alpacas to turtles, has grown immensely. Anyone can get papers stating his pet is an emotional support animal, with no proof, no imprimatur of a reputable organization. The animals don't have to go through any training (try training a turtle); though, for many people they perform an invaluable service. And for others, well, they just want to bring their llama to the cafe. Similarly, any pet owner can go online and purchase a "service dog" vest and papers, stating he has a need only his canine friend can fill.

And guess what? You can be fined more than $1,000 or serve a few days in jail for lying to your landlord about your pet's real status. Perhaps worse: Your dog could be taken away.

Even if your insurance company accepts such certificates, a landlord may not. "If you are renting, landlords can argue that they can't accept tenants with emotional support dogs because it will make their insurance rates go through the roof," says Huff. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, though, landlords have to prove that their insurance rates would rise.

If you have proof -- a letter from a physician and papers stating your pet provides a service or emotional support -- and your landlord still refuses to let you have a service or emotional support dog, you can hire an attorney to represent you. Usually, landlords won't go this far, and for those who have, Huss has not heard of any landlord winning a case against a tenant having a service or emotional support dog.

And my friend with her German shepherd? Her insurance didn't go up. She took her dog to obedience training classes and, yeah, that was enough.

And listen -- if you ensure that your dog is a good citizen, even if you don't get the apartment or the affordable insurance, at least you get the dog that's a joy to live with.

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