San Diego is on the map as one of the dog friendliest of cities. Beaches, hiking trails, and even some stores and cafés accommodate four-legged visitors. It’s all here, from dog sports to doggy daycare. But the welcome mat has a flip side, and it’s raising questions about the rights of both dog and property owners. It’s not the perks; it’s the digs. A growing pack of owners face housing restrictions that are redefining the size and shape of man’s best friend…ever downward.
“I never had a problem before moving to San Diego,” says Maureen Dayon, who recently gave up one of her dogs due to her new townhome’s breed restrictions. Like most rentals and properties with HOAs (housing associations), the townhome also has weight limits that further prescribe the type of dog a tenant may keep. Dayon still has Jack, a black lab-pit mix who frolics at the Laurel Street dog park while she tells her tale. It began in 2005, when she moved here from Florida to live with her boyfriend. When the relationship ended, Dayon had to move into a hotel for almost two months before finding an apartment that would take Jack, who doesn’t conform to most weight or breed restrictions — or both.
“Places didn’t advertise their pet policies,” Dayon says, making it that much harder. On her next move, she and her new husband, a marine sergeant, faced the same problem. They eventually rented an older house in Serra Mesa, but when Dayon became pregnant, the couple sought a larger home.
By now they had a second dog, Miley, a pit bull mix Dayon was fostering — meaning she didn’t own Miley, but was sheltering her temporarily — through a rescue organization called It’s The Pits. Dogs that are fostered have a higher chance of adoption, rescues say. Dayon describes Miley as timid.
When the couple toured the Mission Valley townhome they hoped to rent, the manager advised her there was a 35-pound weight limit per pet. No breed restrictions were discussed, Dayon says. Since Miley was a foster dog, she only mentioned Jack — and the fact that he was “larger.” The manager replied that they were “trying to get corporate to allow” dogs that exceeded the limit. Three weeks later Dayon was told that Jack would be allowed in. A written pet policy she had requested wasn’t provided, Dayon says.
It wasn’t until she signed the lease that Dayon saw the breed restrictions, prohibiting pit bulls. By then she had movers lined up and her husband was about to leave for Afghanistan. Restarting the house hunt wasn’t much of an option.
Dayon’s dogs were pit bull mixes, and she reasoned that the pet fees gave them additional leeway. “My pet deposit was more than my move-in deposit,” she says. On top of a steep rent, the couple was also charged $35 per month “pet rent.”
It was after they’d moved in and Dayon’s husband left for Afghanistan that she got a call from the leasing office.
“We were looking in your window and saw that you have a pit bull,” Dayon says, relating the conversation. “We definitely don’t allow pit bulls.”
The dog in the window was Miley, whom a photo shows to resemble primarily a “pit bull” — a catch-all breed category that encompasses the American Staffordshire Terrier, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and the American Pit Bull Terrier.
“You haven’t seen our pet policy. It’s on page two,” Dayon was told.
According to the townhome’s website, its pet policy is: two pets per home; a maximum weight limit of 35 pounds per pet; a $500 refundable deposit; monthly pet rent of $50 per pet; and breed restrictions that prohibit Rottweilers, Dobermans, Chows, pit bulls, and German Shepherds. “Additional breeds may be restricted,” the site states. No mention is made of pit bull mixes.
Dayon told them Miley was a “lab mix.”
In September, as she unloaded a new crib one day, Jack left the garage and bounded up to a neighbor walking by. Dayon says he jumped up, but didn’t harm the woman, who nevertheless filed an incident report with the leasing office. Soon after, Dayon says, “I got a 36-hour notice to get rid of Miley.”
Faced with moving again, Dayon decided to return Miley to the rescue organization. “I literally had a nervous breakdown,” she says of their parting. It was hard on the animals, too. “Jack lost ten pounds in the week after she left.”
Shannon Van Dorn, a Los Angeles attorney, is now at the center of a case that may set a precedent on issues for renters across the state. Van Dorn’s case against a Homeowner’s Association in Los Angeles challenges its pet weight restriction (25 pounds) as a violation of a California civil code that allows a condominium owner to keep one of “any” dog, cat, bird, or fish subject to reasonable rules and regulations of the association. Her claim states that the association’s rule unreasonably dictates the type of dog a homeowner may have. “There is really no case law to follow here,” she says in an email interview; the statute has not been challenged since it was implemented in 2001. Initially, the association sued Van Dorn for keeping a 75-pound golden retriever. Van Dorn, who says her lease allowed the dog, counter-sued.
Deborah Schowalter, a property owner who rents her Mission Hills duplex to dog owners, says the San Diego County Bar Animal Law Committee “years ago started recommending that landlords not put weight restrictions, as they were unenforceable and not justifiable.”
That concern is echoed by agent Steve Berg, owner of San Diego Castles Realty, in a September blog post, “HOA Rules Gone to the Dogs.” In it, Berg describes how his well-qualified client couldn’t make it into escrow because of his dog’s 45-pound weight; another case that “may go legal.” Berg says he only recently learned that most condominiums have pet restrictions — and “they all seem to be different.” Why, he asks, is a 29-pound dog okay while a 31-pound dog is not? The limit set by the various HOAs “is random at best. Sometimes it is 30 pounds, other times 35 pounds, and still others, 15 is the magic number…”
Opponents of breed restrictions say the limits are as random as weight limits. But the property owners and HOAs say insurance companies make the rules; they just follow.
Those rules have left many homeowners without coverage — and dog owners who rent without many options.
In California, where an owner is liable if a dog bites, even if the dog has never bitten before, homeowner’s or renter’s insurance is all the more important. Most bites occur in the owner’s household.
The restricted list most often include Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Akitas, Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, Chow Chows, Doberman Pinschers, Great Danes, St. Bernards, and pit bulls. But others, from Dalmations to Labradors, make some lists — and weight limits alone can exclude all large and most medium-size dogs from housing.
Landlord Schowalter agrees with the practice of breed restrictions. “Breed is a reasonable way to choose potential traits and characteristics, and makes sense,” she says. “I think people should just not try to keep those breeds in houses, particularly rental houses.”
Insurers, however, have no one central repository for data about dog-bite injuries and related claims to refer to in creating their lists, nor are they required to break down claims payments based on dog bite or breed.
Kenneth Phillips, a lawyer who represents dog-bite victims and is considered the leading authority on the topic, says on his website, dogbitelaw.com, that the insurance industry is “engaging in the controversial and probably ineffective practice of ‘breed bans.’” Denying insurance to dog owners, he says, “is placing them at risk and infringing on their right to own dogs.”
Megan Holt, a San Diego leasing agent for an apartment advertised on Craigslist, responded to a query about breed restrictions and German Shepherds, saying, “Most apartment complexes cannot accept them due to insurance purposes.” German Shepherds, “along with many other breed types,” she says, “are on nationwide breed-restriction lists due to their aggressive nature…. Most insurance companies do not want to take their chances, even with pet references.” Holt isn’t sure what data insurers rely on, but says, “I think it is a national breed list.”
Another ad for a La Mesa duplex points to the same list used by insurers: “Pets are allowed with approval and deposit (no dogs on the dangerous-breed list please).”
But neither the Centers for Disease Control nor the American Veterinary Medical Association supports any such list. So what source have insurers turned to in profiling breeds to exclude from coverage — and therefore from housing?
Several years ago, investigators for the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control conducted a joint study to assess fatal dog bites and recommend ways communities could protect citizens. That report, released in 2000, has been used to sweep breeds from rental and homeowner policies — even though the Centers for Disease Control published a statement that the study does not “identify specific breeds that are most likely to bite or kill, and thus is not appropriate for policy-making decisions related to the topic.” An AVMA task force concluded, “It is not possible to calculate a bite rate for a breed or to compare rates between breeds.” In fact, the study revealed that since 1975, “more than 30 breeds have been responsible for fatal attacks on people, including Dachshunds, a Yorkshire Terrier, and a Labrador Retriever.” In California, a child was killed by a Pomeranian in 2000. Recent studies finding small breeds the most bite-prone support the study’s claim that small dogs are also “capable of causing severe injury.”
CDC statistics show about 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year, requiring costly medical attention — but the agency stopped tracking bites by breed in 1998, partly due to problems identifying the breeds involved, as well as the fact that popular breeds are likely to be in the statistics more often only because there are more of them.
Landlord Schowalter thinks the popularity of pit bulls should be addressed by “requiring that all pit bulls be sterilized,” which, she says “would get rid of the breed.” Many breeds, she feels, have gotten “a bad rap” — but when it comes to pit bulls — “those jaws are too deadly,” she says. “Sorry, but I don’t think we need that sort of dog hanging around kids and folks. There are too many nice ones.”
San Diego–based Einhorn Insurance Agency is one of only a few insurers that issues renter, homeowner, landlord, condo, and townhome policies for all breeds. “We look at each dog on a case-by-case basis and believe it’s the environment that makes the dog who they are, not the breed,” says agent Dori Einhorn. In other words, they don’t accept all owners. “It’s more important to consider ‘bite history,“ ‘ she says. She recently declined a potential client because one of his two dogs had recently bit someone. “Because of the irresponsibility of the owner, we don’t care what kind of dog they own. They are more likely to have an incident in the future.” Einhorn says her agency will insure a home and provide liability coverage for the dogs at no extra charge. “But if a bite occurs, the homeowner must sign an exclusion which states that all dogs in that household are no longer covered.”
Another prospective client with a golden retriever formerly had a claim “well over $300,000,” she says. Hence, Einhorn asks potential clients a probing set of prequalifying questions to determine what kind of owners they are.
In 2008, dog bites represented a third of all homeowner insurance liability claims, according to the Insurance Information Institute. The number of dog-bite claims keeps rising — even though most homeowner policies now exclude “high risk” breeds from coverage.
Einhorn says that in her two years in business, and currently covering 600 households, with around 60 percent of them owning pit bulls, she has had only one bite claim…a dachshund that allegedly leaped up and bit a woman’s face.
She still questions that incident. “Have you ever seen a wiener dog jump?”
— Sheila Pell