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Boone woman’s Great Danes are great fun

Chris Dorst
Karen Holestin shares treats with five of her six Great Danes at her home in Julian. The dogs (from left) are Lilly, Daisy, Rose, Sunny and Poppyseed.
Chris Dorst A rare 11-year-old Great Dane, Sophie, is adored by her owner, Karen Holestin. Danes typically live just six to eight years.
Chris Dorst The Holestins' Great Danes frolic in a fenced-in yard outside their Boone County home.
Chris Dorst Great Dane owner Karen Holestin's car can be identified outside of her workplace at Valley West Veterinary Hospital by this vanity plate.
Chris Dorst 7.95x5.84 DANES3 Karen Holsten with the 5 younger energetic Great Danes inside the fence at her home in julien. photo by chris dorst

JULIAN, W.Va. -- Karen Holestin is the grande dame of Great Danes. Currently, she only has six, but she's had as many as 10 at one time.

Karen's oldest "pup," Jerdan's Sophisticated Jade, is affectionately called Sophie. At 11 years old, the pet's formerly black coat is now white and gray, and she moves slowly through the front yard along Julian Road. Her deliberate pace belies the former confirmation champion of her past -- she was a prizewinning show dog in her youth.

Karen is protective of the aging gentle giant, knowing that 11 years with a Great Dane is rare. Also known as the German mastiff or Danish hound, the Great Dane is one of the world's tallest breeds. Its average lifespan is six to eight years.

Once Sophie, the honorary matriarch of the pack, is safely back in the house, it's time to meet the others. Bounding out the door, there's Poppyseed, Rose, Lilly, Daisy and Sunny. They circle the fenced yard like a herd of horses, each with different coloration, confirmation and personality.

When Karen had 10 in the house, six adults and four pups, she admits it was a bit crowded. Through the years, she's had a total of 20 of the breed. The love for the massive dogs started early for Karen; she had her first Great Dane at age 19.

Add Little D, the boxer, and Ginger, the German shepherd, 15 horses ages 4 through 30, 41 goats, and the 235-acre Hannah J. Farm seems full of life for Karen and her husband, Alton.

Karen's grandmother, Lillian Hannah, left 65 acres to her as a young woman. When a coal company showed interest in that land, she sold it and bought the mountain she now calls home. On a recent Sunday, Alton and friends were mowing and baling hay to feed the horses through the winter. The goats fend for themselves, but the dogs, well, they eat a lot.

How much food do the dogs eat in a week?

"It's easier to say how much they eat in days," Karen said, laughing. "It's about 55 pounds every three days. I buy it by the pallet at Sam's."

When Karen isn't taking care of her menagerie, she's taking care of everyone else's pets as a veterinarian technician at Valley West Veterinary Hospital in Charleston. She majored in nursing at Marshall University right out of Duval High School, but when her first Great Dane, Charlie, developed skin problems, she started to do research. That led a switch to vet tech school, and she's been caring for animals ever since.

Life with the dogs in the farmhouse at the bottom of the hollow can be hectic. To escape, Karen and Alton drive up the hill to a simple yet elegant ridgetop cabin constructed by a crew of Amish builders. The horses and goats roam around the cabin, curiously looking at the human visitors against the verdant backdrop of a former strip mine site.

Gravel roads dot the landscape, leading to gas wells on the property. She takes the dogs up to the cabin, but only one at a time so they won't run off to chase deer and other wildlife.

"I haven't gone on vacation in years, but I don't need to," Karen said, her eyes scanning the horizon. "I have this."

And even when she's not at home with her pups, everyone can tell where her heart lies.

Her license plate reads "LUVADANE."

Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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