Though not all insurance companies profile — Farmers and State Farm are among those that don’t — those that do base their restrictions on actuarial and claims data, dog-bite reports, and state or local breed-specific laws. According to an article found on Michigan State University College of Law’s Animal Legal & Historical Web Center (animallaw.info), the use of actuarial data has been blocked by courts in some situations. For example, when actuaries found correlations between poor minority neighborhoods and increased risk for homeowners’ claims, they stopped issuing policies in those neighborhoods, a practice known as “redlining.” In the same article, the writer states that breed discrimination is a different kettle of fish from redlining, because insurers “have been unable to demonstrate an actuarial justification for discriminating based on breed.”
In the 1990s, reports of dog attacks increased. Breed bans boomed, lawyers found a new specialty and insurance underwriters scrambled to adjust their policies. But those who actually worked with dogs scratched their heads.
“It didn’t jibe with my experience,” says Janis Bradley, formerly an instructor at the San Francisco SPCA’s Academy for Dog Trainers. Bradley, who had worked with dogs for years without incident, also talked to other trainers — “I didn’t know anyone who had been seriously bitten by a dog.” Her curiosity piqued, Bradley decided to find out what was actually going on, and started looking for facts related to this contentious subject.
In 2001, soon after she began her research, another sensational story gripped San Francisco and the nation: the mauling death of Diane Whipple by two Presa Canarios kept by Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel. Though the case hinged on owner negligence rather than the breed’s aggression, the dogs were huge and the details were terrifying, and it became a touchstone for breed-ban advocates; terms Bradley calls “fear words” made headlines. Of the many factors that lead to breed bans, she thinks reporting bias is the most influential. How — and how often — information is relayed, along with a focus on certain breeds, can distort the issue in people’s minds. Her research convinced her that perception is everything; the more we hear something, the more we believe it to be true. No breed has been proven more likely than another to bite, Bradley says, but a log she keeps of Google hits and key phrases related to bites and breeds turns up an unsurprising fact: Pit Bull and Rottweiler are the most common search terms.
The study “Breeds of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979 and 1998” (J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2000; 217: 836–40) is often cited as support for restricting these two breeds. This study, which was a collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), tried to link breeds with fatal bites to assess policy implications. “It has done tremendous damage [but] there is no putting the genie back in the bottle,” Bradley says of the report, which she feels continues to be misused today. The biggest problem, she says, was its focus on fatalities, “an extraordinarily rare event.”
In contrast to the study’s narrow approach, Bradley gathered all the research then available, pulling together numbers showing that the likelihood of being killed by a dog is about one in 18 million. Or that roughly 3.9 million of the annual 4.7 million reported bites require no medical attention. (Most bite victims are children, according to the CDC.)