SUWANEE -- Dixie Belle came to her foster family in pretty poor condition.
With sores all over her body due to untreated allergies, the Great Pyrenees had lost most of her beautiful, white fur and had just recently been attacked by another dog.
Despite her lackluster appearance, the foster family -- Suwanee residents Lori and Ron and their two children, Alexa and Zack -- fell in love with the big, lovable Dixie and decided they couldn't bear to part with her.
These days the 2-year-old Great Pyrenees -- she just celebrated a birthday on St. Patrick's Day -- leads a good life with her forever family. But that's not the case for many other dogs of this breed who are finding their way into shelters and rescues. And though the Imhofs have Dixie, they haven't forgotten about other dogs in distress.
Enter the Great Pyrenees Rescue Atlanta.
The nonprofit rescue organization dedicated to the breed was started in January by John Heldrich, a retired CEO who lives in Dunwoody, as a spinoff of Adopt a Golden Atlanta, which had been rescuing Great Pyrenees along with golden retrievers for years.
"Adopt a Golden started collecting these (dogs) and there was such a need that we ended up spinning off the Great Pyrenees rescue," Heldrich said. "We call them the Southeast's best kept secret and that's what they are. Once you meet these dogs you'll fall in love with them."
According to the American Kennel Club, the Great Pyrenees is believed to have originated in Central Asia or Siberia and followed the Aryan migration into Europe. The breed takes its name from the mountain range in southwestern Europe, where they guarded flocks on the steep slopes. The Great Pyrenees was appointed court dog in France in the 17th century.
Heldrich has two rescued Great Pyrenees of his own, 4-year-old Jenkins and Journey, who is just over a year old. He refers to his boys as "gentle giants." Despite their imposing size -- Jenkins tops out at about 135 pounds, while a still-growing Journey is at about 100 -- the two dogs are calm and friendly. Journey is even a little shy.
"Where they're unique to other breeds, and this is important, is they're phenomenal family dogs," Heldrich said of the Great Pyrenees, "great with cats, great with young children, but they're protectors and so they protect the family. If they don't have a herd to protect, the family is the herd. They protect through their size and their bark."
"Yeah, they're large," Lori Imhof said, "but they have hearts of gold."
That could be the reason GPRA has already amassed a team of more than 75 volunteers, including the Imhofs. And word is still getting out.
"We're trying to let people see how fabulous these big fluff balls are," Heldrich said. "They truly are gentle giants."
A big, burly Great Pyrenees named Jack was just adopted out to his forever home Monday.
"(The family) had three young boys and as I pulled into their driveway, half the neighborhood showed up and it was a wonderful thing," Heldrich said. "The dog is full of personality and he just kind of gave a big hug to each kid. You feel a little like Santa Claus when you do this."
For more information on GPRA and to donate, volunteer or apply to adopt a Great Pyrenees, visit www.greatpyratlanta.com or call 404-829-2609.