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Loving homes for 'gentle giants'
Rescue group links abused, abandoned Great Pyrenees with both foster and permanent families
Jack Dunbar snuggles up with Sam, one of the rescued dogs his family fosters.

Great Pyrenees Rescue of Atlanta

Next adoption day: 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Dec. 4, PetSmart, 128 Perimeter Center W, Atlanta, 770-481-0043.


They save them after car accidents, from abandonment, illness and certain death.

The Great Pyrenees Rescue of Atlanta organization is not even a year old, and as of Nov. 4, it has rescued and placed almost 100 dogs into new homes.

"We anticipated that we would save 30 to 40 Great Pyrenees in a year," said John Heldrich, founder of GPRA. "That was our expectation."

Heldrich, a retired CEO who lives in Dunwoody, runs GPRA, a nonprofit volunteer organization, as though it was a
business complete with board members.

The board is made up of, among others, a director of applications, medical, foster care and a director for the 175 volunteers that give their time, money and effort to the rescue of the "gentle giants," as Heldrich calls them.

Lori Imhof of Suwanee, director of marketing for GPRA, is a rescue parent and foster home for Great Pyrenees.

"I got involved two years ago when I was going to look at golden retrievers with my sister, whose dog passed away," Imhof said. "I decided I was going to foster because I was taken by all the dogs who needed homes. I completely fell in love with the breed."

The American Kennel Club puts the origin of the Great Pyrenees breed in Central Asia or Siberia, that later became part of a migration into Europe. The breed is named for the range of mountains that stretch along the border between France and Spain.

Most have natural guarding and herding instincts, thick white coats and are plentiful in size (males can weigh 120 pounds).

"These dogs are just not that well known," Heldrich said. "They were bred to protect, and they protect without being vicious, with their size and their bark. They're just phenomenal family pets."

Jennifer Dunbar adopted GPRA's first rescue, Sam, who is now 3 years old.

"He is just amazing. And he is so gentle and polite, he's the most polite dog I've ever met," she said.

Dunbar lives in Flowery Branch with her husband and three children, ages 1, 6 and 8.

"I obviously watch (Sam) with the 1-year-old, but he is so tender with her," Dunbar said, "Just no worries around the kids at all."

She expected to have a transition period when Sam came to live with them, but Dunbar said the process was seamless.

"(GPRA) had even given us the option of fostering him for a couple of weeks and then committing to the adoption after that, but it was less than a week before we said, ‘you cannot have him back.'"

It's a bittersweet problem, said Heldrich, but GPRA usually loses their "fosters" because they end up adopting the Great Pyrenees they are supposed to keep on a temporary basis.

Foster care, where an individual or family shelters and monitors a new rescue, is essential to ensure Heldrich's highest priority: properly matching dog and owner.

"We spend an extraordinary amount of time, and I do personally, trying to make certain we know the personality of the dog," Heldrich said, "We do home checks so we understand what the new forever owner is wanting, and what their expectation is so we have a happy ending. We've been very successful so far at getting the right Great Pyrenees with the right family."

When the dogs are rescued, typically they are in need of medical attention. GPRA pays for medical care through donations and adoption fees.

"We'll spend between $700 and $800 per dog," Heldrich said, "We have arrangements with vets that give us discounts, but you take a dog to the vet to have an operation, it's expensive."

Fees for adopting a Great Pyrenees range from $600, for a puppy aged up to one year, to $300 for an older dog.

All of the rescued dogs are spayed or neutered, have their required shots and have been socialized or trained when needed. And whenever you adopt a Great Pyrenees, you're doing a good thing Heldrich said.

"You're making a difference," Imhof said, "Whether you're volunteering for a rescue or just helping somebody."

Philip Grossman, an Atlanta engineer who has been involved with animal rescues over the past five years, is a recent volunteer for GPRA. He met Imhof at a GPRA adoption day event at PetSmart.

"I told her I would like to help out, that I did photography as a hobby that is turning into a full-time career," Grossman said, "I always make a point of donating the proceeds of anything I make with my photography to some animal rescue group."

For the holidays, Grossman is donating his time by taking photographs of the Great Pyrenees dogs and their rescue families.

Heldrich said the volunteers are the lifeblood of the organization.

"If there is something I would want to emphasize, is the extraordinary people that help us with this," he said, "Our volunteers, particularly, our board members, they for the most part have full-time jobs and this is a passion for most of them."

The dogs come to GPRA in various stages of abuse and neglect.

"We had a five-month-old puppy we named Faith and believe it or not, somebody slit her throat," Heldrich said, "She's a remarkable dog today."

Apparently, the innate good nature of the breed wins out over the effects of abuse.

Imhof said of Korine, the dog she is currently fostering: "She will sit with you and literally push your arm up so you will wrap your arm around her."

"We've had dogs beaten and shot at," Heldrich said, "And, they're incredibly resilient and they heal and they repair."