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Cleveland couple bonds with breed of Great Pyrenees
McSwiney family fosters and adopts dogs through rescue group
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Marla McSwiney, center, tries to restrain Monty, who is leading her pack of Great Pyrenees. Her husband, Frank, is holding back two other dogs with their leashes at the home in Cleveland. The McSwineys have fostered 29 dogs for the Great Pyrenees Rescue of Atlanta and own seven of the breed. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Great Pyrenees Rescue of Atlanta raffle

What: Raffle with $10,000 grand prize to offset medical costs of the rescue organization

When: April 26 drawing

Cost: $20 per ticket, must be purchased by April 16

More info:

To help

For more information on the organization, to apply to be a foster, or to adopt a dog, please visit

When Marla McSwiney first met Noah, her niece’s Great Pyrenees dog, she saw a fluffy, white being that was loving and loyal. However, Noah had heartworms, and McSwiney had no idea how to help care for the animal. She called up John Heldrich, founder of Great Pyrenees Rescue of Atlanta, to ask for his advice.

“He was so kind and helpful,” McSwiney said. “He just wanted to help me help my dog.”

And while Noah was recovering, McSwiney soon realized she was in love with the breed.

Four years later, the Cleveland woman owns seven of the 70- to 140-pound dogs and has fostered 29 for Great Pyrenees Rescue of Atlanta.

“Our goal was just to foster with no intent to keep any of them,” McSwiney said.

However, some of the fosters stole her heart. Therefore, she and her husband, Frank, couldn’t bear to part with them.

“I would have kept all of them if I could,” she said.

Great Pyrenees Rescue of Atlanta will celebrate its five-year anniversary next month. Its goal is to rescue and foster 150 to 200 Great Pyrenees each year. To date, the group has rescued 43 in 2015 and more than 800 since the group’s founding.

To mark its anniversary, the rescue grup is preparing for its annual raffle. The money helps raise money to pay for the animals’ medical bills, transportation and other costs of fostering and rescuing the dogs.

Raffle tickets cost $20 each, and the grand prize $10,000 winner will be announced on April 26.

Unlike some rescue organizations, Great Pyrenees Rescue of Atlanta takes dogs in all conditions. Some come from kill shelters. Others come with medical conditions. Some dogs were in abusive homes while others were relinquished when their families did not have room for the large pets.

McSwiney has fostered Great Pyrenees in all shapes and sizes with a variety of sicknesses. Each time, the dog leaves for a new family, happy and healthy.

“Medically, we do everything from heartworm treatment to amputations to (ligament) repair,” McSwiney said. “We take them regardless of medical condition.”

Some of McSwiney’s own Great Pyrenees came from extreme conditions. Two of her dogs are timid around new people and only adapt after many meetings.

Others, like Tory, are outgoing and loving to anyone. Tory, however, was a special medical case of his own.

“Tory, we believe, was hit by a car,” McSwiney said. “He had a splint, and we tried to save the leg but it wasn’t possible.”

Tory is missing his front right leg, but it doesn’t stop him from running and playing with his friends. McSwiney noted he can outrun any of the other dogs with ease.

Each dog accepted by the rescue group is evaluated to receive proper care before being put up for adoption. The foster families will take the animals to and from veterinarian appointments, treatments and more to ensure the dog’s well-being.

“The average cost to rehabilitate a dog is about $1,300,” Heldrich said. “Some are in horrible condition.”

All of the preadoption costs are covered by the nonprofit. But residents looking to adopt an animal that has been hurt, sick or abused, or even a Great Pyrenees that is healthy, need to know how to care for the breed. 

“It’s good if you’re comfortable giving medication, like pills, and keeping the dogs on a schedule,” said Bonnie Kennedy, a foster and adoption volunteer with the organization. “You also need patience. These dogs are bred to think for themselves, so it’s a lot like dealing with a 3-year-old. Training has to be appealing to them.”

The organization takes these factors into mind when allowing a dog to be adopted or fostered. Potential fosters or owners must complete a series of applications, interviews and home checks before receiving a dog.

“In the home, understand that if you don’t have a fence, Pyrs always need to be on a leash,” Kennedy said. “They will wander. And it’s good if you don’t have a problem sweeping up fur.”

Great Pyrenees Rescue of Atlanta also conducts checks to ensure all existing dogs are current on shots and medications. They must also pass a foster home check or potential adoption home check. Once a person has been evaluated, then he or she meets the dogs.

“The dogs are very loyal,” Kennedy said. “Once they bond, they consider you part of their family.”

The organization works with foster families and with potential new owners to identify each dog’s temperament, personality, likes and dislikes to ensure a good match once adopted. McSwiney said most adoptions are successful, but some families simply do not mesh well with the animal.

“The dogs pick us,” McSwiney said. “Harley(one of McSwiney’s seven) was fostered twice, and she likes to be an inside/outside dog, which didn’t fit with the families she was with.”

Nine-year-old Harley is different than most because she will venture to the edge of the McSwiney’s property but not beyond. Because the dogs were bred to be livestock guardians, staying close to home is not usually a quality they have.

Most Great Pyrenees are calm, low-energy dogs, so they are good with small children and elderly people. However, once in a while, a dog with an unusual personality will come along.

McSwiney emphasized the dogs need exercise. And some are playful while others simply enjoy walking.

“One of my fosters, Seger, was so hyper and playful,” McSwiney said. “The family he was with had a small space, and it didn’t work out for him. His new owners just adore him though.”

McSwiney also noted while the dogs are large and furry, they do not eat as much as one would expect. She said Great Pyrenees only eat 1« to 2 cups of food twice daily. They can also live to be 12 years old or older.

The group seeks to create relationships in addition to fostering and caring for Great Pyrenees. McSwiney has become so close to some of her fosters and their families that she cares for them when the owners are on vacation.

“(B and E’s) parents go to Europe every year, so they come and visit for a week or two.”

McSwiney said while the dogs are eager to visit with her and their friends, when the owners return they are just as excited to go back home.

“This is what drives us,” Heldrich said. “To see the joy (in the people and the dogs) when people adopt a Great Pyrenees. That’s why we do this.”

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