The Boy Who Talked to Dogs: A Memoir

The Boy Who Talked to Dogs: A Memoir

by Martin McKenna


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The Boy Who Talked to Dogs: A Memoir by Martin McKenna

When Martin McKenna was growing up in Garryowen, Ireland, in the 1970s, he felt the whole world knew him as just “that stupid boy.” Badly misunderstood by his family and teachers, Martin escaped from endless bullying by running away from home and eventually adopting—or being adopted by—six street dogs. Camping out in barns, escaping from farmers, and learning to fend for himself by caring for his new friends, Martin discovered a different kind of language, strict laws of behavior, and strange customs that defined the world of dogs. More importantly, his canine companions helped him understand the vital importance of family, courage, and self-respect—and that he wasn’t stupid after all. Their lessons helped Martin make a name for himself as the “Dog Man” in Australia, where he now lives and dispenses his hard-earned wisdom to dog owners who are sometimes baffled by what their four-legged friends are trying to tell them.

An emotional and poignant story seasoned with plenty of Frank McCourt–style humor, The Boy Who Talked to Dogs is an inspiration to anyone who’s ever been told he or she won’t amount to anything. It’s also a unique, fascinating look into canine behavior. In these pages, Martin shows how modern life has conditioned dogs to act around humans, in some ways helpful, but in other ways unnatural to their true instincts, and how he has benefited enormously from learning to “talk dog.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629144337
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication date: 10/14/2014
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 1,066,218
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Martin McKenna is known in Australia as the “Dog Man.” He has been a guest on more than 450 radio shows and is the author of What’s Your Dog Telling You? and What’s Your Dog Teaching You? published by HarperCollins Australia. He lives in Nimbin, Australia.

Read an Excerpt

The Boy Who Talked to Dogs

A Memoir

By Martin McKenna

Skyhorse Publishing

Copyright © 2014 Martin McKenna
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62914-880-9


Two Dogs and Ten Humans

Irish families could get very big in the 1970s, and ours was no exception. There were a lot of us in the Faul family — two dogs and ten humans, in fact. Back then, I went by the name of Martin Faul.

There was Sigrid, our mammy, Mick, our dad, Major and Rex, our two German Shepherds, and eight of us kids. We lived in a small semi-detached house on the Garryowen estate. Not in the pretty old village part, mind you, but in the new housing development nailed to the countryside next door. If you're ever looking for it, Garryowen lies just outside Limerick in the southwest of Ireland. To me it was the center of the universe.

We were such a big family, it was sometimes difficult squeezing all of us into our small house, especially on bad-weather days. Whenever it rained our poor house shrank a few sizes like a woolen sweater put accidentally through the washing machine. It also got much noisier.

Of us eight kids, four were girls and four were boys. And just to confuse things, three of us boys were identical triplets — John, Andrew, and me.

This might sound like a lot of kids, but the McManuses down the road had sixteen, and so did the Maloneys and the McNamaras. Some families even had more.

Major and Rex, our German Shepherds, were just as much part of the family as us kids. They were huge and shaggy, with massive bushy tails. Their enormous ears flicked around missing nothing, while their paws were nearly as big as bread plates. They looked more like wild wolves than pet dogs and it became their job to babysit us. Major and Rex went everywhere with us triplets during the day except to school. Even when we took them for a walk, we couldn't take them off their leashes once we left our yard. It was one of Dad's strictest rules.

"They're not bloody toys," he said. "So keep them on their leashes. The first one of you to let them run free will get his backside flogged raw." He grabbed me by the hair to check which triplet I was, looking for the telltale white patch on the back of my head. He pointed a grim finger between my eyes. "Especially you."

Even though the dogs had been with us for years, the day they first arrived remained unforgettable. Dad had cycled his old, black bike home from work. He was a driving instructor in the army and worked at the nearby Sarsfield Barracks. Every now and then, he'd come home with a sack slung from his shoulder, full of left-over bread from the army mess kitchen. Usually he'd put the sack on the table for Mammy to unpack, but this time he lowered it gently to the floor, and then jerked his head at it. "Go on. Take a look."

John, Andrew, and I shoved our siblings out of the way to be first to the sack. But then the sack wriggled and we fell backwards. "What's that?" John yelped.

Dad leaned back in his chair and lit a cigarette. "Go on. Open the sack and get them out."

Mammy handed him a mug of tea and eyed the sack suspiciously. "Mick," she said in her thick German accent. "Vat is in that sack? It better be those loaves of bread you promised me."

We crept nearer, gingerly opened the sack, and peered in. Out staggered two fluffy German Shepherd puppies. They padded nervously across our kitchen floor, sniffing and gazing at us with big eyes. Their enormous ears kept flopping over and their huge paws kept tripping them up.

We stared in awe. "Aaaah! Puppies!"

Mammy forgot all about the bread. She dropped to her knees to run a gentle hand over their fluffy black backs.

We kids shoved each other, trying desperately to wriggle in closer.

"Don't squash the buggers," growled Dad. "And don't bloody pick them up either," he threatened. "I'll thrash the hands off the first little bastard who does. All their feet are to stay on the floor." He glared at us. "And if there's any fights over them, I'll tap them both on the head." That was his way of saying he'd kill them with a hammer. We knew he was joking — sort of. He raised his mug of tea to Mammy, who was grinning from ear to ear like a little girl. "There you go, Siggy," he told her. "They'll grow up nice and big to keep you safe. They're from the army kennels. Their names are Major and Rex."

Mammy's smile widened. "Thank you, Mick. They're vonderful." She bustled off happily to find something to feed them. And that was how Major and Rex became part of our family.

* * *

Just like the dogs, we kids knew who ran the house — Mammy. To us, she was a princess. Her golden blonde hair was always beautifully styled; she had strong, perfect features, and was six feet tall. Her eyes were steady and blue. She walked through our cramped house like Nordic royalty.

She'd been born into a well-off German banking family from Frankfurt but her life changed forever when she became an exchange student at the London School of Economics. That was where she met my father while he was stationed with the UN army in London. The moment they met, they fell head over heels in love.

She was very strong-willed and wanted to marry Mick, this big, wild Irishman, and that was that. Their marriage was a strange international pact, a bit like Germany marrying Ireland, and both nations moving into a public housing unit in Garryowen. Fireworks followed — and plenty of tears as well.

Sometimes I caught Mammy looking out the kitchen window at nothing in particular. Was she thinking of Germany and Frankfurt? Was she imagining the wealthy life she'd walked away from? She'd glance over her shoulder at me when I came into the room, the dogs padding by my side, and look a little wistful. "My family had German Shepherds too," she'd say, fondling their ears. "Major and Rex remind me of home."

Dad was even taller than Mammy. Bigger too, not just in body, but in spirit. Whenever he entered a room, he filled it right up to the brim with his presence — and that was when he was sober. But when he was drunk and entered a room, you made damned sure you got out fast. Back then, it was considered a very manly thing in Ireland to drink a lot, and my father was considered exceptionally masculine.

Sober, he was one of the most charming men on the planet. However, when he was in the wrong mood he could win Olympic medals for drinking. "Another one for Ireland," he'd say, raising a glass full of whisky to his lips. He'd drain it to the last drop like milk.

Sometimes when he was drunk he was very funny to watch — from a safe distance. After spending most of his money down at the local pub, he'd zigzag his way homewards. This was quite a feat if you knew how many glasses of Guinness, whiskey, port, and brandy he'd had. Once he reached our doorstep, he'd pause to catch his breath. Swaying slowly, he'd concentrate on inserting his key in the front door. We could hear him from all over the house.

"Bloody hell, what's wrong with this lunatic key?" we'd hear him say loudly in frustration. The moment the key slid home, guilt usually hit him hard. How much money had he poured down his throat during the evening? How many rounds had he bought everyone? Was any of his paycheck left?

These questions were followed by the same amazing revelation at least three nights a week. He'd stand swaying at the door and raise his hands like Moses. "What this family needs is a bloody, bollocksy budget!" His voice would ring throughout the neighborhood like a prophet's. "I know how to save bloody money! This family's going to start learning how to turn all the bloody lights off!" He'd sway some more before shouting, "Do you hear me, family?"

Finally pushing the door open, he'd stagger inside and weave clumsily around the house in search of light switches. Major and Rex followed at a distance, watching him warily, upset by all his loud noise and manic energy. But Dad was oblivious to them.

He'd lean forward and flip off each switch like he was God switching off the world. If someone was in the room, he'd point at the culprit with a wavering finger. "What do you think this is?" he roared. "Shannon fucking Airport? There's enough lights turned on to land a bloody plane on the roof. Turn that light off before you bankrupt me!" By then me and my brothers and sisters were smothering nervous giggles in our hands. We all knew when to keep our traps shut.

If Mammy was reading in bed, she'd just roll her eyes and switch her light back on once he'd left the room.

Job done, Dad would zigzag downstairs until he fell backwards like a collapsing mountain into his favorite armchair. There he'd drift into a deep drinker's sleep, head nodding down lower and lower, until it ended up on his chest like an exhausted baby's.

Show over for the night, all us kids would run quietly back to bed and one by one fall asleep. Except for me, that is. Upstairs in the bed I shared with my brothers, I lay very still, waiting for everyone else to fall asleep. My ten fingers would be twitching in anticipation, waiting impatiently for my father to start snoring.

Pesky fingers, they were, all of them natural-born thieves. They knew exactly where a treasure trove of coins was imprisoned — coins that were desperate to be liberated by me. Their place of incarceration was inside my father's trouser pockets. The ones he was wearing.

As soon as Dad's snores began to roll thunderously through the house, my fingers poked and pushed at me until I carefully slunk out of bed and crept down the stairs. They negotiated me around the two stairs that creaked and along the hall towards the living room. They totally ignored my heart which was thudding inside me like a trapped wild thing.

Think of all those lovely coins, they crooned.

In fact, my fingers didn't stop prodding me until I was standing right on the threshold of the living room. Terrified, I peered in. Dad was only illuminated by the hall light, but I could still see enough to give me second thoughts.

The size of him was terrifying, from the length of his legs, to his sledge-hammer fists hanging over the arms of his chair. While I was scrawny like a piece of skinned string, my father was six-foot-five in his bare feet and tightly packed with muscle from head to toe.

I swallowed nervously as my eyes travelled up the length of him to study that big head lolling around on his chest. At this point common sense usually kicked in. My brain would frantically urge my feet, Turn around! Walk away now! Danger! Danger!

Unfortunately, my fingers refused to listen. I stared fearfully at my father's face as each of my silent, careful footsteps brought me closer to his nearest trouser pocket. I was so terrified my heart climbed into my mouth. My ears stretched out even further on invisible stalks to catch any unusual sounds between each volcanic snore. My eyes stayed glued to his face, watching for the slightest clue he was about to wake up. I felt like a spring being wound tighter and tighter as I crept closer and closer.

What scared me most about my father was his nose. It was surely the ugliest, most broken nose in the world, so dented in the center that it looked like he'd been kicked right in the middle of his face. When I first read the fairy tale of Jack and the Beans talk, the drawing of the scary giant asleep in his chair reminded me of my dad.

However, even this fear couldn't turn back my delinquent fingers. They itched, wriggled, fidgeted, and squirmed until they positively hurt with longing for those coins hiding inside those pockets. I slowly reached out my hand towards his nearest trouser pocket and slid my fingers inside.

My father's breath caught mid-snore and his big, bent nose twitched as he started to stir. I froze, and sensing something behind me, I glanced over my shoulder.

Major and Rex were standing at the threshold staring at me intently. Their bushy tails were low, beating slowly side to side. I knew they were soon going to bounce over to me barking happily if I didn't work out a way to stop them. If Dad caught me, I was dead meat.

I glared hard at the dogs and angrily waved my free hand at them as if to say, Piss off!

They cocked their heads to one side.

Stupid dogs! I flicked my hand at them again and pulled the most blood-thirsty, cross-eyed ferocious face I could.

Mesmerized, they sat down at the threshold to watch.

Ah, to hell with them.

Desperately, my fingers took over. I leaned closer and let them slip all the way down, smooth as snakes. Down past his crumpled, damp handkerchief with its horrible sticky bits. Past his army truck keys trying not to let them rattle and click until ... Eureka! My fingers finally touched treasure and tonight the takings were good. He hadn't drunk it all away.

I transferred the coins, one after another, to my own pocket. And before I could blink it was done. As I pushed past the surprised dogs on my way out, my feet barely touched the floor.

Fee fie fo fum, I just robbed a sleeping Irishman, I hummed. Be he alive or be he dead, I've now got money for chocolate and a cigarette.

I flew up the stairs and slid back into bed. Even though it was forbidden, I lifted the blanket and let Major and Rex crawl underneath. I rolled on my back next to Andrew, my heart still beating crazily.

First thing next morning, I was in Mr. McSweeney's corner shop as soon as it opened with Andrew and John. Feeling like a millionaire, I grandly dropped the coins on his counter. First we bought an impressive pile of chocolate bars.

"Let's have three ... no, four cigarettes each," I said happily to Andrew and John. "Hell, why not make it nine cigarettes each?" Mr. McSweeney carefully brought up the precious cigarettes from beneath the counter and pushed them stealthily across the counter at us. "You'll all be smoking sooner or later anyway," he grumbled as his fingers happily wrapped themselves around my coins.

Reluctantly, I watched the beautiful things slide across the counter to their new owner.

* * *

There were other times, however, when my dad drank and he wasn't funny at all. We knew those evenings straightaway. They were the nights when the door slammed back on its hinges, shaking the whole house, and he marched inside yelling. I hardly knew what he was roaring about because I was too busy rolling myself into a ball beneath my blanket and jamming my hands against my ears as tightly as I could.

Those evenings turned into long nights in which screams flew around the house, followed by insults, curses, plates, glasses and furniture while we kids hid ourselves like mice.

Andrew, John, and I usually wriggled under our bed and lay with our arms around each other, rocking in unison. Sometimes we snuck downstairs, risking our lives to grab Major and Rex and drag them up to our bedroom by the collars so they wouldn't kill our father. Together, the five of us hid under the bed, shoulder to shoulder.

Now and again Major and Rex would growl deep in their throats when things got very loud or Mammy screamed. We'd tighten our hold on their collars and shush them. Huddling up closer to their bodies, we buried our faces in their thick, soft fur.

The raging storm only ended when the alcohol finally overwhelmed my father and he fell asleep. As soon as everything fell silent, Andrew, John, and I crept through the house, the dogs padding at our heels, and searched everywhere until we found Mammy. We hugged her tightly as we could while the dogs licked her hands, her legs, anywhere they could reach.

"Don't worry," we told her fiercely through our hugs. "Everything will be okay."

"Yes," she'd say over our heads. "Thank you. Of course, everything will be okay now."

The only good thing about those nights was the terrible price my father would have to pay the next day. Karma would come calling in the form of a thumping, great hangover. No other vengeance could have been crueler. Even I was impressed by how vicious they were. And sometimes when my dad woke up, I was the only member of the family around. Ha! Such fun.

First his body would twitch. Then his eyelids would crack open to the barest of slits. At the first ambush of sunlight, he'd groan deeply — a truly tortured sound. Finally, without moving his head, his eyes began to cautiously roam around the room in search of help. Carefully, he'd focus, trying to find someone — anyone — to help him. And there would be me.

"Martin?" he'd whisper, wetting his lips slowly like a man dying of thirst.

I knew what he wanted.

On really bad hangover mornings, my father would easily have swapped his soul for a mug of scalding hot tea. Especially if it had ten heaping spoonfuls of sugar in it. Tea and sugar was the hangover cure he swore by.

"Martin?" he'd whisper again mournfully.

"Yeah, what?" I'd ask, looking him over without much interest.

He usually looked sicker than a dead dog on these mornings, but I couldn't push the memory of his bullying roars and Mammy's screams out of my head. On one such morning I looked at him coldly and said nothing.

"For the love of God, Martin, a cup of tea for your old dad," he begged. He looked pitiful.

That little devil of mischief sitting somewhere on my shoulder poked at me. Yeah, I could think of something funny to pay him back for last night alright. I cocked my head, as though hearing something from outside the room. "Hold on. Is that someone calling me? Sorry, Dad, I'd better go."


Excerpted from The Boy Who Talked to Dogs by Martin McKenna. Copyright © 2014 Martin McKenna. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue ix

Chapter 1 Two Dogs and Ten Humans 1

Chapter 2 Irish Weather 19

Chapter 3 Always at the Bottom 31

Chapter 4 The Railway Culvert 47

Chapter 5 Stupid Boy 69

Chapter 6 Padraig O'Rourke's Barn 79

Chapter 7 Outsiders 87

Chapter 8 The Garryowen Horse Fair 100

Chapter 9 Tige's Enchantment 117

Chapter 10 Supreme Boss of All the Dogs 127

Chapter 11 Fight Back or Give In Forever 141

Chapter 12 My Patch 151

Chapter 13 Dirty War 170

Chapter 14 Sterner Stuff 186

Chapter 15 Getting Wilder 197

Chapter 16 Joining the Human World Again 203

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