ARTS AND FEATURES — 04 September 2014

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Martin McKenna tells Shelley Marsden about the memoir that charts his unique childhood and special relationship with man’s best friend…

TO say Martin McKenna’s childhood was unique is to understate the case – and probably gives it a positive gloss that underplays his tough start in life.

Those experiences have been published as a memoir, The Boy Who Talked To Dogs (Skyhorse), which has already had glowing reviews (Malachy McCourt said he’d “never look down on a dog ever again after reading this book”), RTE did a radio documentary on it and in Australia, where Martin now lives, it was the basis for a TV documentary about his life.

At the moment, it’s fair to say Martin is Australia’s best-known dog whisperer – and he learned how to communicate with dogs in a very unusual way. He grew up in Garryowen, Limerick but ended up running away from home at 13 to escape domestic violence and being “bullied at school by teachers” for being severely dyslexic.

Coming from a large family of eight children – Martin himself is an identical triplet – his dyslexia meant he grew up unable to even write his own name. He was called ‘stupid boy’ by one particularly sadistic teacher who made his life hell, openly mocking and beating him until one day, it came to a head.

Says Martin: “One day I’d had enough and jumped out the classroom window and ran home – but two of my teachers followed after me in their car. When they walked in our gate, they threatened to drag me back to school and give me the biggest beating of my life – so I set my two beloved German Shepherds on them.

“The dogs bit and chased them out the gate back to their car. It felt like a glorious victory at the time but was an unforgivably thoughtless thing for me to do. Not long after, they were euthanized by the local council for being dangerous dogs. I loved them so much; I was devastated by their death and it was completely my fault.

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With his two best furry friends gone and not wanting to return to school to be endlessly victimised, the young Martin ran away from home, climbing out his bedroom window one night. For a while, he lived under a railway siding just out of town in the quiet blackberry-filled isolated area of the railway tracks – and it was there that he met a group of six stray dogs who would completely change his life, and become a new family to him.

“They were an English Springer Spaniel, a Foxhound, a chubby black Labrador, a little fluffy Skye terrier-cross, a Newfoundland-cross and a long nosed curly Jack Russell”, remembers Martin fondly. “They sort of drifted into my life and stayed – mainly because I was jumping the fence of the local knackers yard and stealing meat and bone scraps for them.

“It was pretty funny how quickly you came to get snobby about someone’s cooking”, he recalls. ‘Geez, you burnt the roast a bit tonight, Mrs Reilly.’ Or that cake was a bit dry, Mrs Healy.’ Talk about ungrateful.”

“I loved having the dogs around because I was lonely and scared and they were wonderful company – always optimistic and never showing any negative human traits – which was exactly what I needed at that time of my life.”

When the weather turned cold, a local boy with a violent father suggested Martin sneak into farmers’ barns at night and bury himself in the stored hay to keep warm. So this is where the dogs and he slept – for three years.

“Boy, we had fun sliding down the hay pile every morning together!” says Martin, with an unerring sense of positivity. “ I won’t lie – life could get very rough – as you know, it rains a lot in Ireland and sometimes I felt like I’d freeze to death – especially when my clothes were wet.” But he managed, stealing food from farmhouses when the farmers were out, taking bread and milk off house steps and even scavenging out of bins when needs be.

Martin easily brings to mind the happy times with these dogs – be it swimming in the local river, meeting other ‘outsiders’ and he and his canine chums walking everywhere together, particularly at night. It was during this time that Martin learned what he calls “the secret language of dogs”, which he maintains helped me communicate with every dog he’s met since.

5Meanwhile, back in Garryowen his two brothers kept trying to persuade him to come home and introduced him to a boy who became his best friend, Brandon. He eventually convinced Brandon it was time to return home – three years after he fled the family home. It wasn’t a clean break, though.

“I did keep returning to leave food for the dogs along the train track area where we used to hide out during the day. My poor mother! While I was gone, she never stopped trying to get me to return home and I almost broke her heart. This book is my way of sincerely apologizing to her and a celebration of her love and strength in the face of adversity. It was never her fault I left.

And the tale has a happy ending. Martin did return home to live with his family until he left Ireland in search of work on English building suites, later reconnecting with his father before emigrating to Australia, where he met the love of his life and had four children.

There he began to help people with their dogs, appearing on hundreds of radio and TV shows sharing his mysterious tips. His first book on dog behaviour, The Dog Man, was published in 2001. It may have been ghost written, but the experience made him realise that he wanted to start writing himself, as hard as that would be with his dyslexia.

It was his wife Lee who finally broke through the problem by refusing to write down any more of Martin’s poems for him. “She was the person who taught me to read and write. So I learned how to be literate using thousands of my own poems and now have a suitcase full of them. Since then a pen and a pad of paper’s never far away. Pretty crazy, considering how I hated even touching a pencil or pen before!”

Since then, Martin has penned two further books on the secret language of dogs, the bestseller  What’s Your Dog Telling You? (2011) and What’s Your Dog Teaching You? (2013). The latter is less of a pet owner’s guide and more about how an animal can teach you how to live a better, happier life.

6As for the memoir, The Boy Who Talked to Dogs is full of humour, and full of fascinating characters and times in Ireland back in the 1970s (an insight into the local boys hurling match is particularly funny).  But the book also has its fair share of thought-provoking scenes.

Says its author: “I hope it helps other adults put their own past to rest. I’ve had a lot of people say my story has inspired them to try new things – and that’s my main aim. Don’t be scared of the past and don’t let it hold you back!”

The dogs that have been the basis of Martin’s career are still, clearly, everything to the 52 year old. “I meet and have conversations with dogs wherever I go in public. You really do meet some fascinating dog personalities out there. I have a pack of rescue dogs at home on my farm in Nimbin, two ex-pig hunting dogs, an ex-race greyhound who got a red card for fighting, a drug addict’s dog I saved and a black dingo X that was found in a tree stump as a pup by a bushwalker.

“They give me peace of mind – especially after a bad day with sly or nasty humans. For example, I came home once after a meeting with a TV production company that was trying to trap me in a bad contract and the experience left a very sour taste in my mouth – but a long walk with my pack – and an hour later I’d walked all that frustration out of me. They purify my soul every day.”

The Boy Who Talked to Dogs (Skyhorse), by Martin McKenna is available on Amazon

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