ALPHARETTA — When Ginger and Mitch Arias decided to add another dog to their family, it wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision.
The Cumming residents have three kids — ages 6, 8 and 10 — and their youngest had recently been attacked by a dog. They talked to their veterinarian, did a lot of research and then were smitten by a ball of fluff named Duke.
At 7 months, Duke is almost as tall as Lauren Arias, 6. But the girl isn’t bothered by his stature, and instead is content with rubbing his fluffy white fur and wrapping her arms around his thick neck during his recent “adoption day” at Pet Lodge Pet Resort in Alpharetta.
This happy family adopting a great Pyrenees is exactly what John Heldrich and his small army of volunteers hope to see more of, now that Heldrich has officially formed the nonprofit Great Pyrenees Rescue of Atlanta. The organization sprung from efforts made by Adopt A Golden Atlanta, a nonprofit that, in its efforts to rescue golden retrievers, ended up finding abandoned great Pyrenees, too.
Heldrich realized there was a need for a rescue organization dedicated to raising awareness of the breed.
“We always had golden retrievers, and I was passing by my secretary’s desk about three years ago — she was going on rescues — and I passed by and I saw what I thought was a big white golden,” he said. “We adopted him; he was about seven months old and we just fell in love with the breed.”
Heldrich, his wife and six daughters now live with two great Pyrenees, one of whom runs the border of their Dunwoody property every morning and every night, making sure all’s clear on the homefront.
Also called the Pyrenean mountain dog, the great Pyrenees were brought to Spain by the Romans and became well established in the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain. They were given the task of guarding fortresses and made the official dog of the court of King Louis XIV of France.
“Jenkins here, he takes off in the morning and he borders the property. And he comes back and reports, ‘All safe,’” Heldrich said.
“Journey on the other hand, he’s never barked. It’s really strange. But he’s really gentle, very, very docile. Just wonderful family dogs.”
Which is what Heldrich and the other volunteers with Great Pyrenees Rescue of Atlanta want people to know. It’s their size that makes them formidable, not their personality.
That sentiment is shared by Suwanee resident Lori Imhof, who recently adopted Dixie. Imhof and her husband have two children, 6 and 2. During a recent snow storm, Dixie played with the kids as they rode their sleds.
“I was a golden retriever owner and I came to adopt a golden, and I was like, ‘What are these big white dogs?’ And I fell in love,” she said. Imhof started out as a foster for great Pyrenees, but soon turned into a forever home.
“I fell in love and I couldn’t give her up,” she added.
And that’s the only downside to the about 50 volunteers with Great Pyrenees Rescue of Atlanta. Many open their homes to the fluffy, docile dogs and instantly fall for their easygoing personalities. But along with volunteers for fostering a dog, Heldrich said there is a need for donations, too.
“It averages about $700 a dog to save a dog, with vet bills, lodging and depending on the dog, some are easier than others,” he said. “And fosters are critical. Once you foster you tend to not put the dog up (for adoption), because you get so attached.”
Two of the rescued dogs are also staying at Pet Lodge Pet Resort in Alpharetta, which offers space to the group when it’s short on foster homes. While they stay at Pet Lodge, volunteer trainer Janice Shields said she enjoys working with the dogs and teaching them basic commands.
“They’re actually pretty easy to work with,” she said, noting the only main issue is “counter surfing,” because of their size. “But they mind very well, they’re really easy to train. We get them very quickly waiting at doors, waiting to put their collars on. They’re very devoted dogs.”
Rick Aiken, director of the Humane Society of Northeast Georgia in Gainesville, said they will see a great Pyrenees come through the shelter from time to time. Often it’s because they haven’t been given enough “jobs” to do by the family, and they run off.
“They almost need to have something to do. People will get them and they’ll wander off,” he said, adding that they are great for a family — or, a herd of goats.
“A lot of people who have, say, goat herds or sheep, they’ll just stay right out there and watch over them. They’re really interesting animals.”
And that sense of protection and family is exactly what the Arias family was hoping for.
As they got ready to put Duke into the car for his ride home, Ginger Arias knelt down to talk to her daughter.
“Is that the biggest birthday present I’ve ever given you?” Ginger asked. Lauren nodded shyly. “Is he going to sleep on your bed at night?”
Again, Lauren nodded.