‘A group of six stray dogs completely changed my life’

Martin McKenna ran away from home in Limerick after realising he ‘wasn’t suited to life with humans’. He’s now Australia’s best-known dog whisperer

I was a hyperactive little monster when I was a kid - chaos followed me wherever I went. Before I changed my name, I was known as Martin Faul and there was always someone yelling at me. I could tell exactly how much danger I was in. If their face went a certain shade of red, their eyes bulged and the veins stood out like tiny crooked worms on their forehead it meant one thing. Duck and run. I learned to move fast to avoid getting another belting.

Believe me, I deserved getting yelled at. Severe hyperactivity makes you do crazy things. I stole. I lied. I constantly broke things. My ten fingers were busy thieves that had no scruples at all. My mouth was a runaway fiend, constantly blurting out things people didn’t want to hear. I was also the youngest of identical triplet boys so I was constantly wrestling and arguing with my brothers, desperately fighting for my share of life.

John. Andrew. Martin. The three of us fought over everything. “You’re like a litter of bloody pups!” my dad would yell in exasperation. “Stop fighting and out into the yard with ye all!”

My poor Mammy. There were five other kids in our family so she had eight kids altogether. Somehow we all managed to squeeze into in our house in Garryowen, Limerick.

Mammy was German and her name was Sigrid. She looked like a blonde Nordic princess and made our small Faul universe tick over efficiently like clockwork. It was only Dad and I who messed up her carefully arranged household routine and budget.

Dad was Mick Faul and Mammy adored him. He could be incredibly charming and hilarious - and loved playing pranks on her, trying to get her to laugh. He could have given Cary Grant a run for his money when he was sober.

However, when Dad drank, he drank for Ireland and was terrifying. He was a giant of a man, with fists like sledgehammers. His nose was so dented it looked like someone had kicked him right in the center of his massive head. Whenever he came home and the front door slammed back on its hinges, we knew what was about to happen and all hid like mice around the house until the rampaging storm had blown over.

My severe hyperactivity caused storms of a different sort. I drove everyone in my poor family crazy - everyone except our two magnificent German Shepherds, Major and Rex. To me they were like two giant wolves and always made me feel safe. I loved curling up into their fur and falling asleep. They treated me like I was an unruly pup.

Besides being hyperactive, I was severely dyslexic and couldn’t read or write. I loathed school. The blackboard was my enemy, hiding its knowledge from me. I couldn’t even read and write my name. One day I had enough and jumped out the classroom window and ran home, but two teachers followed me in their car. When they walked in our gate, they threatened to drag me back to school so I set Major and Rex on them. The dogs attacked them quite badly. It felt like a glorious victory until they were euthanized by the local council for being dangerous. I was devastated by their death.

Not long after, I ran away from home, climbing out my bedroom window one night to escape getting another belting. I now understood I wasn’t suited to life with humans. For a while I lived under a railway in a quiet blackberry-filled area of the railway tracks. It was here I met a group of six stray Garryowen dogs who completely changed my life.

They sort of drifted into my life and stayed, mainly because I was jumping the fence of the local knacker’s yard, stealing meat scraps for them. I loved having them around because I was lonely and scared and they were wonderful company, always optimistic and never showing any negative human traits. This was exactly what I needed at that time of my life and they taught me many life lessons like how to be more responsible, trustworthy and honorable.

When the weather turned cold, I moved into local farmers’ barns at night. We buried ourselves in the hay to keep warm. These barns were where we slept for three years. Boy, we had fun sliding down the hay piles every morning together! I won’t lie - life could get very rough - and being constantly wet and hungry isn’t enjoyable or romantic.

To survive, I stole food from farmhouses. Grabbed bread and milk off house steps on nearby housing estates and scavenged out of bins when need be. But there were plenty of fun times with these dogs - like when we went swimming and walking as a close gang together. I also started to meet a lot of eccentric locals who were outsiders like myself. Strangest of all, I started to learn the secret language of dogs. This has helped me communicate with every dog I’ve met since.

Meanwhile, my two brothers kept trying to persuade me to come home and introduced me to a boy who became my best friend, Brandon. He eventually convinced me it was time to return home three years after I ran away. Afterwards, I kept returning to leave food for the dogs along the train track.

My poor mother! While I was gone, she never stopped trying to get me to return home. I almost broke her heart. She’s now deceased but this book is my way of apologising to her. It’s a celebration of her love and strength in the face of adversity. It was never her fault I ran away. She was an angel, and I named my eldest daughter after her.

My story has a happy ending. My amazing wife Lee taught me to read and write as an adult using my own poetry. I have four fantastic children who are all doing brilliantly at school and university. I now live on a small farm in Nimbin, Australia and am surrounded by a pack of rescue dogs and a loving family. I'm Australia's best-known dog whisperer and am now throwing myself headfirst into my poetry, art and music.

I’ve done over 450 radio shows and four TV shows around Australia, as well as interviews in Ireland. I’ve also written two best sellers on dog behaviour, The Dog Man (ABC Books) and What’s Your Dog Telling You? (ABC, HarperCollins).

My latest book The Boy Who Talked To Dogs is moving and hilarious. My story captures a moment in Irish history when there were a lot of unforgettable characters around. I’ve had a lot of people say my story has inspired them to try new things - and I really like that. Don’t be scared of the past and never let it hold you back.

The Boy Who Talked To Dogs by Martin McKenna is published by Skyhorse Publishing

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