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Byline: By Gail Tabor, The Arizona Republic

Skippy is very special to 13-year-old Heather Pelletier. The 2-year-old Cairn terrier, who looks like Toto in The Wizard of Oz, was a celebration gift from her family when Heather marked five years of being free from cancer.

For the past two months, Heather has wept buckets of tears and expressed the wish that she could take Skippy and run away, just like Dorothy and Toto. Because of an insurance dispute, her family feared it would have to give her dog away.

But Heather and Skippy got help from a wizard - not from Oz but from the Arizona Insurance Department.

Nancy Pelletier, Heather's mother, doesn't know what snapped in Skippy's brain one day in mid-October. The normally placid pooch bit a Federal Express courier who had delivered a package to the family's home in Gilbert.

''The garage door had been left open by another delivery person earlier in the day,'' Pelletier said. ''I didn't realize it. But when the Federal Express person was walking away, Skippy ran out and bit her on the leg.''

Pelletier reported the bite to her insurance agent and the Maricopa County Rabies/Animal Control agency. This was Skippy's first brush with the law, so he was put under ''house arrest'' for 10 days. All his shots were up to date.

Then the blow fell. The Pelletiers say they were informed by their insurance agent that the courier had filed a $300,000 lawsuit. A letter from Farmers Insurance Co. told the family that its homeowner's policy would not be renewed because a claim had been filed. Coverage was to cease Dec. 29.

Farmers agent Dan Sullivan of Mesa denied any knowledge of a lawsuit but confirmed that the Pelletiers' policy had been canceled.

''Dog bites are very serious, and once a dog bites, they (companies) are afraid it will happen again,'' he said.

''That's why the state of Arizona gives companies the right to deny coverage when something like this occurs.''

The Pelletiers offered to send Skippy to a relative in Seattle, but Farmers still refused to reinstate the policy.

Sullivan explained it this way: ''They have five children. That means they have the potential to get another dog and tease it, which makes it vicious. That's why Farmers won't reinstate, and I agree with the policy.''

As it turns out, there was no lawsuit. The Federal Express courier, Judy Ludwig, said Tuesday that she never has sued, never has expressed any intention of suing and has asked only to have her medical bills covered.

According to Ludwig, a Farmers representative ''said she would get me a settlement that would cover my medical bills, reimburse the two days of workman's compensation, plus something extra for pain and suffering.''

Ludwig clearly was puzzled when contacted about the purported suit.

At the Department of Insurance, Gay-Ann Williams, a special assistant to the director, said insurance companies are not allowed to cancel policies if homeowners have taken action to ensure that a problem cannot happen again. And she was puzzled by Sullivan's logic of five children having the potential to get another dog and make it vicious.

''Oh no, no, no, no,'' she said. ''This sounds bizarre.''

After a phone call by Williams, officials at Farmers agreed. Chris Reed, regional research-and-development manager, said late Tuesday that the company would reinstate the policy if the Pelletiers would sign an exclusion waiving the company of responsibility for any future dog bites.

A representative of Farmers told the Pelletiers the action was being taken ''in the spirit of the holiday season.''

For the first time in two months, Heather went to bed happy Tuesday night, instead of crying about the possibility of being parted from her beloved pet.

Skippy, however, is under permanent house arrest.

Color photo by Mary Annette Pember/The Arizona Republic

Heather Pelletier, 13, almost had to give up her terrier, Skippy, after the dog bit a courier. Skippy is under permanent house arrest.


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