Tuesday, March 30, 2004

Breed bans barking up wrong tree

Tuesday, March 30, 2004 The Halifax Herald Limited

Breed bans barking up wrong tree

By RICK CONRAD Petpourri

AS IF most of us didn't already have enough reasons to dislike insurance companies.

Now one of their ilk has decided to discriminate against certain dog breeds.

Allstate, the international insurance giant that last year raked in $2.72 billion US in net income on $32.15 billion US in revenue, is refusing home insurance to people with Rottweilers, German shepherds, pit bulls or Doberman pinschers.

The company that boasts "You're in good hands" with Allstate is worried that the four breeds are too high a risk. A spokeswoman told the Calgary Herald last week that the company did a risk assessment in 2003 on dog liability and found the breeds didn't pass. She said a single dog bite could bring a million-dollar lawsuit.

For Emmanuel Gionet of Calgary, that meant giving up the "good hands" of Allstate and not turning his back on Sasha, a Labrador-Rottweiler cross, and Daisy, a German shepherd-Doberman-Lab mix, when the firm refused to renew his home insurance because of his dogs.

Reportedly, the only havoc Sasha and Daisy could wreak may be messing up your makeup with a good old-fashioned face lick. (A local company gladly took Gionet's business.)

You know what? I think Allstate is on to something here. It's the only one out of 207 insurance companies in Canada with this pooch-prohibitive policy, but you could extend it to other breeds that could be just as dangerous in their own way.

Let's bark for a ban on vertically challenged dogs like basset hounds or bichons frises. I know from personal experience that you sometimes don't see that little guy parked behind you when you're cooking supper. One misstep and it's a belly flop on the linoleum.

It's understandable that Allstate wants to protect itself from escalating claims. The company has a similar policy for our litigious neighbours to the south, with some expanding it to other breeds like Akitas, chows and huskies.

And I'm not trying to trivialize dog attacks, which are extremely traumatic and sometimes deadly.

Nonetheless, Allstate's decision is flawed. And it ignores the crime-deterrent effect of simply owning a large dog. To single out specific breeds is reactionary and doesn't address the real problem - irresponsible owners.

There's no doubt that a Rottweiler, like a basset, is a powerful animal.

But even smaller dogs can be dangerous. Last summer, for example, a Jack Russell terrier came charging after our cat as Joe was trotting home along the sidewalk. Luckily, Joe quickly scaled our fence for safety. We told the dog to beat it and lectured the owner on not having him leashed.

But we're not about to lobby for a ban on the breed altogether.

The problem is rarely the breed or the dog alone, it's how the animal is raised. Ill-informed or intentioned owners bring up bad dogs.

And some owners are just careless. I'm sure the Jack Russell's owners thought that chasing a neighbourhood kitty was kinda cute.

Any dog reared with proper training by responsible, loving people can grow up to be as friendly as the goofiest yellow Lab.

(As a matter of fact, four Labs were on a list of fierce and dangerous dogs in Halifax in 2001.)

But this recent breed bashing isn't really surprising. It was only a matter of time before big business began treading the trail blazed partly by myopic municipal politicians in this province.

Guysborough municipal council in February banned residents from owning new Rottweilers, and forced current Rotties to be muzzled in public at all times.

The town's top dogs said they made the move partly to protect children.

I assume it'll just be a matter of time before these same safety-conscious types round up all the hunting rifles, impound everyone's vehicle and raid residents' homes for smokes.

But rural councillors aren't the only ones bitten by the bad-breed bug. In December at Halifax regional council during a debate on off-leash parks, Coun. Harry McInroy (Eastern Passage-Cole Harbour South) suggested that dogs be muzzled at all times while running free in a park.

It's too easy to say let's muzzle all dogs or ban certain breeds.

It's a lot more difficult to hold bad owners responsible for their actions.

Or, gosh, here's a revolutionary idea: How about devoting more money to enforcing the bylaws and other legislation already in place?

Bring the hammer down on people who train dogs to fight, or on puppy mills who keep their dogs in deplorable conditions. It's time for tougher penalties in animal cruelty cases.

Maybe if our political leaders would make a commitment to real solutions instead of reactionary ones, then we, including our pets and our kids, would all be in better hands.

Rick Conrad is The ChronicleHerald's education reporter. (petpourricolumn@yahoo.ca)

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