In any case, your risk factor for lawsuits and criminal charges increases if your dog has already bitten someone or has a history of behaving aggressively. Unfortunately, many owners of aggressive dogs are in denial about the risks their animals pose.
Their dogs may have chased mail carriers, cornered elderly neighbors and terrified every child on the block, but the owners will insist their Fidos wouldn't hurt a fly.
"I always see something in the dog's history that was a warning sign," Phillips said. "Either the dog owner does something that created the circumstances that led to the attack, or plenty of evidence of viciousness was presented to the owner and they've chosen not to see it."
If this describes you, you need to snap out of it. Yes, you love your dog, but you're failing to understand the danger that aggressive animals pose to your family, your neighbors and your finances.
Limit your liabilityIf you are or want to be a dog owner, here's what you can do to limit your risk:
Research breeds before you buy. Yes, the owners of many breeds blacklisted by insurers will insist their animals are cream puffs, but you should understand that some animals pose greater risks than others. Talk with a trusted vet about which breeds are most appropriate for your family and lifestyle.Be honest with your insurer. Not telling your insurer you own a dog is a big risk. If the dog hurts someone, you may not be covered, particularly if your breed is blacklisted by that company. If your insurer doesn't cover your animal, another might.
Do the right thing. Spaying or neutering does more than ensure that more unwanted puppies aren't brought into the world. It also dramatically reduces the chances that a dog will bite.
Invest in some training. A dog needs to understand its role in your family "pack." All kinds of behavioral problems can result if it doesn't. Ask your vet for a list of respected trainers or get a referral to a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, who has specialized training in animal behavior.Take sensible precautions. No dog, no matter how docile, should be left alone with an infant or small child. Keep your dog under tight control when introducing it to new people and new situations. Avoid playing games, like tug of war, that encourage aggression. Throw a ball instead or take the dog for a walk on a leash.
Get real. A dog that repeatedly snaps or lunges at people isn't being "protective"; it's being aggressive. There may be a medical cause, or the dog may need training, or both. Don't make excuses. Make appointments with your vet and a trainer.
Get adequate coverage. Most homeowners insurance policies come with liability coverage that tops out at $300,000. You'll probably want more. A $1 million "umbrella," or personal liability, policy typically costs about $300 a year and is a good investment if you're at greater risk for lawsuits -- which, as a dog owner, you are. If your net worth is close to or more than a million, opt for even more coverage. A good rule of thumb is to have liability coverage that's twice your net worth.Liz Pulliam Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "Your Credit Score: Your Money & What's at Stake." Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. She also answers reader questions on the Your Money message board and helps middle-class families cope at Building a Brighter Future.
Updated July 14, 2009