That’s me twenty years ago in June 1999 standing in front of a barn in Maine holding my new Pyr puppy in my arms. The woman standing next to me, Melanie, is my pup’s breeder. Back then, when I started learning about Pyrs no one even whispered the word “rescue” so breeders were where you went.
The puppy who became Sabrina was in a barn stall with 15 other squealing puppies. Melanie owned goats and was breeding Pyrs to provide for her family. When people asked me where I got Sabrina, I would joke that these gorgeous dogs come from France, when in reality my pup came from a hardscrabble farm behind the Walmart in Farmington, Maine.
Picking Sabrina up on that lovely June Saturday was the culmination of many months of research. I had never heard of this breed until a mutt named Seattle wandered up to my house from my neighbor’s property below and introduced herself with a friendly tail wag. I became totally enchanted with her. My neighbor would call and call her. She ignored him completely and I wasn’t going to rat her out. I liked that she was an independent thinker—a dog after my own heart. Seattle was brave, too. We were gardening and a bear came barreling up the hill, right past us. She didn’t waste a second and took after him, barking and chasing him deep into the woods.
When I asked what breed Seattle (right) was, I was told “Great Pyrnenes and Beagle”. I had heard of Beagles of course, but what was a “Great Pyrenees”? When I started to research the breed, saw their pictures and learned about their noble history, I was totally hooked.
But not so fast. I was in no position to adopt a dog, any dog. I worked full-time in Connecticut and owning a dog who would be alone nine or ten hours a day was not a good idea. I couldn’t get this breed out of my head and decided to learn everything I could about them. A friend whose mother showed and bred Cairn terriers suggested connecting with the AKC club. Tom, my partner, and I joined the local Pyr breed club, went to meetings and started talking to breeders. The club meetings were contentious and not terribly informative for those learning about the breed who did not have an interest in “showing”.
Nevertheless we were welcomed, made new friends and proceeded to introduce ourselves to breeders. A change in my life occurred early in 1999 when a corporate merger prompted a buyout offer from my employer. It opened up the opportunity for Tom and me to relocate to the Catskills. Shortly after, my friendship with Seattle ended abruptly when her owner, who was in the reserves, was called up and Seattle went to live with his parents. I never saw her again but heard she had a long, happy life.
Suddenly I was free of the constraints of a 9-5 job, although I planned to work from home in the Catskills. Puppy motherhood was within my grasp. Tom and I talked to more breeders early in 1999. I hoped we could get a pup from an AKC breeder in New Jersey. I went to meet the new Mom and her pups in February but the breeder decided as newbies we weren’t appropriate for any of her dogs. We talked to other breeders in the Northeast, some of whom were having issues producing enough females, which is what I knew I wanted.
In late spring we were finally shuffled over to Melanie, a new breeder who had borrowed a couple of males from a recognized New York kennel. She was learning the ropes of breeding and showing—and producing pups prodigiously. Her breeding efforts had produced a dwarf Pyr, the first time I learned of and saw dwarfism in Great Pyrenees. We agreed that the pup we purchased would come with a limited registration, which means we would get her AKC registration papers when I showed Melanie proof of her spaying. We paid $600 for her; interestingly the same amount that NGPR asks for a purebred pup today.
Whatever the imperfections of Melanie’s line, I was thrilled to have a Pyr puppy. I never intended to breed or show her. This was before the Internet or social media, so it wasn’t that easy to obtain a Pyr. It was mostly word of mouth. We were happy to make the seven hour drive to Maine and return home with our scared, diarrhea-afflicted baby, stopping at almost every rest area along the way. No one told us “no-paws-on-the-ground” for young pups. She only had one set of shots so we brought her to our vet the following Monday. He knew nothing about Pyrs and wanted to remove her double dew clews. We knew enough to tell him that was a terrible idea. Sabrina came down with kennel cough later that week. We never knew where it came from. Only a few days after her first vet visit she was in worse shape than the day we got her.
Getting a Great Pyrenees was a process for us. We were willing to spend months learning about the breed, make numerous contacts, accept rejection and an unknown person’s decision of who was the right pup for us, travel hours to get her, stay overnight in a motel—whatever was necessary to get the pup we would make part of our family for 12 years. We secured our yard, took Sabrina to puppy training classes and on weekly hikes with a friend’s pack to socialize her.
It wasn’t until 2003 that a breed rescue became established in the Northeast. Tom and I were part of that. National Great Pyrenees Rescue was established three years later, when it became clear that the GPCA Pyr rescues in the North wouldn’t help the dogs dying in the South. Sabrina was the only Pyr we got from a breeder and the only dog who was AKC-registered. After that all our other dogs came through rescue.
How did you get your first Pyrenees? Let us know by sending your story and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barbara Mattson, Founder, NGPR