Jana Riess on How Her Rescue Dog is Rescuing Her

Zeb the night of his adoption. Photo courtesy of Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including “The Prayer Wheel” (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and “The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church” (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


This weekend I saw a bumper sticker with the slogan “Who rescued who?” shoehorned inside an adorable paw print. It’s a fair question, I think, for anyone who has ever adopted a shelter dog.

My husband and I have adopted a number of dogs over our 28 years of marriage, and all of them were refugees from one situation or another.

One, a chihuahua-Basenji mix, had lived with a homeless woman outdoors for at least a year before coming to us. That dog never did potty train completely, had a serious heart defect and could be downright vicious about protecting her food, but was otherwise a loving pet. Well, except for that time she bit my husband and put him in the ER. There’s that. It’s a good thing she only weighed about 12 pounds soaking wet, or she might have taken his fingers clean off.

Our other dogs had stories that were not nearly as dramatic but equally heartbreaking. It’s a rotten thing, not to be wanted.

Onyx and Jana in 2010. Photo courtesy
of Jana Riess

Our most recent pet, Onyx, was about a year old when he came to us. All the foster family knew was that he had been brought to the shelter “by a mean man in a truck.”

From this sliver of information we spun many a narrative about his possible provenance: Perhaps Mr. Mean Man had wanted a hunting dog, or a guard dog for his farm, and found Onyx’s Zen-like demeanor too passive for his needs. But that was exactly what made him the perfect dog for us, with a family member on the autism spectrum and an ongoing need to make our home a sanctuary.

Onyx passed away in May of last year, after a terribly quick decline from cancer. On the night of his death, I posted a brief announcement on Facebook and said I would write more later when I felt more in control of my emotions.

I never did post a follow-up; it was just too hard to talk about. I felt acutely conscious that people who hadn’t loved a dog in that way wouldn’t understand that we’d lost a family member, and that people who did understand would be so full of sympathy that I couldn’t quite bear their kindness. It’s difficult to explain.

The months that followed were fine, for the most part. We enjoyed our work and stayed busy with projects and church and friends. My husband and I, now empty nesters, enjoyed traveling together and took several trips without having to worry about who would take care of the dog. But always, for me, was this emptiness below the surface, the knowledge that a part of me was missing.

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Source: Religion News Service