Visitors often do a double take when they first enter the doors of the 30-member Wood River Valley Adventist Church in Hailey, Idaho. Being greeted by a four-legged creature in a fur coat and a welcoming “Woof!” before receiving a hearty handshake and a church bulletin may have some wondering whether they’ve come to the right place. But smiles soon replace looks of confusion as members explain that theirs is a dog-friendly church, and their nonhuman best friends attend worship services with them each Sabbath. Visitors’ dogs are enthusiastically welcomed to join in as well.
No one seems to recall exactly when and how dogs first crossed the church threshold. One person insisted it was about a decade ago when a former pastor started bringing his own dog to church. Another thought it was when a visitor was going to leave church early because he didn’t want his dog sitting in a hot car, so they invited him to bring his canine companion inside. Others don’t remember it being any other way.
“We’ve been bringing Puccini since we first joined the church about three years ago,” said Karen and Dennis Dunn. “People just seem to love bringing their dogs here. More dogs are coming all the time.”
Puccini, an 11-year-old bichon frise named after the couple’s favorite opera composer, has apparently adjusted well to worshipping in church each Sabbath.
“Occasionally a dog will bark and cause some distraction, but overall they’re quiet and behave,” Karen said. “We’re a small community, and bringing our dogs to church works well for us.”
“We have members and visitors who come here just because their dogs can tag along,” adds John Hall, head elder, whose 6-year-old Chihuahua, Stanley, is a regular attendee. “Just last Sabbath a young couple visited us and brought their dog. They said, ‘We looked online and saw this was a dog-friendly church.’ They were on vacation, and I don’t think they would have come if they hadn’t been able to bring their dog.”
Hailey, with a population of about 8,000, is part of the Sun Valley mountain resort community of Idaho. Located near the base of Bald Mountain, one of the higher summits of the Smoky Mountains of Idaho in the Sawtooth National Forest, the region attracts more than 200,000 skiers, hikers, and other lovers of the outdoors each year. Its lakes, rivers, snowcapped mountains, and high-end shops—all made accessible not only by road but also Friedman Memorial Airport—draw in more than the usual visitors. Such celebrities as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, Demi Moore, Clint Eastwood, and Bill Gates have all owned property in the area.
1 Locals credit their most famous historical part-time resident, Ernest Hemingway—who, they say, spent many years in the Sun Valley area and completed For Whom the Bell Tolls during a stay there in 1939—for attracting the initial wave of Hollywood celebrities.2
For Adventist tourists who come to the district for a weekend with their dogs, the Wood River Valley church makes it possible for them to attend church services when Sabbath options for their dogs are limited. Even visitors who don’t own dogs are intrigued by the canine-friendly environment.
“I really enjoy seeing all the different dogs,” says Ellen Cole, a frequent visitor to the church. “I’m a cat owner; I don’t have a dog. But all the dogs make it really fun to be here.”
“Visitors who seem to love it the most are children,” says Juli Miller, who, along with her husband, Barry, has been attending the church in Hailey since 1990. “When children walk in and see the dogs, they get a huge smile on their faces, open their arms, and run up to hug the dogs. The wagging tails and furry faces make the children feel welcome.”
Juli understands the concerns some might have about maintaining a spirit of reverence in the worship service and not having the distractions that animals might bring. She suggested that setting guidelines for the management of the dogs in order to maintain a sense of sacred space and time for prayer and connection with God could resolve potential issues.
“Other churches could at least try it and see,” she said. “You could invite certain kids to bring their dog to church one Sabbath and share a story about their dog with the others.”
Juli and Barry own three cesky fouseks—Esta, Emma, and Eva—a wirehaired versatile breed from Czechoslovakia, and a Brittany spaniel named Absaroka. They say dogs “fit well” in their church. They are “weaved into the sermons” and “warm things up,” Barry says. He concedes, however, that allowing dogs in church might not be for everyone.
“It works here because we’re small,” he says. “It might not work in a large church in New York City, but it works here. If anyone has ever complained about the dogs, I haven’t heard about it.”
“The dogs are of all sizes, all breeds, all temperaments, but they seem to get along,” Juli adds. “More often than not, visitors are excited, relieved, and intrigued to be able to worship with animals here in the mountains. They seem to find it fitting that we can come here and worship with our best friends.”
The Wood River Valley church is not alone in the community in opening its arms and its doors to “man’s best friend.” Local restaurants and other businesses also welcome canine companions.
“Almost every restaurant allows dogs to eat with you on their outdoor patios and provides water and treats,” Karen says. “People bring pictures of their dogs and plaster them all over the restaurant bathroom walls. Banks welcome dogs and give them treats. When you go to the airport and you have your dog in the car, they are given a treat. And we have a huge animal center [Mountain Humane] that adopts out hundreds of dogs every year. It’s a very dog-friendly community.”
The nearby city of Ketchum also considered the needs of dogs about five years ago when it generously designated 80 acres of grass, trees, and trails as a local off-leash dog park.
“A high-end motel and golf course were slated to be built there,” a hotel worker explained. “But it fell through, so they made it a dog park.”
Members realize that allowing dogs to attend church services could cause challenges for some visitors. Not everyone likes dogs and might find them distracting, and allergies to dogs could result in a visitor walking back out the door. So far, however—as far as they recall—the dogs have posed a problem for only one visitor.
“One woman didn’t like it because she said, ‘I’m allergic, so please keep the dogs away from me,’” Karen explained. “So we just kept our dogs at a distance, and she was fine.”
Other members noted that not every dog’s personality matches well with church-going, such as Carrie Williams’ cesky fousek, Cheska.
“Cheska’s nervous around other dogs and doesn’t like to interact with them,” Carrie says.
With the overwhelmingly positive response to their canine-friendly environment, however, the dogs, they say, are here to stay.
“The dogs break the ice with visitors and help them feel more welcome,” Hall says. “We love having them here—and we believe visitors do too.”
To learn more about the Wood River Valley Adventist Church or to book a stay at one of the church’s guestrooms, go to woodrivervalleyid.adventistchurch.org.
Sandra Blackmer is an assistant editor of Adventist Review.