“The Boy Who Talked to Dogs, by Martin McKenna. Skyhorse Publishing. $24.95.
The odds were totally against the author when as a schoolchild he fled his Garryowen, Ireland, home in the 1970s to become a barn nomad.
Suffering from ADHD and living with a German mother (Mammy), a drunk father and seven siblings, McKenna continually finds himself being disciplined with a belt by his father and Catholic school administrators, who he finally stands up to.
Eventually, he has enough and cuts loose with a verbal barrage at home and school and flees both to live in nearby barns, staying a step ahead of the resident farmers while seeking out his next meal at every turn.
In the process he adopts – or is adopted by – seven street dogs seeking nothing more than a next meal and some trusty companionship.
Pa, Red, Blackie, Missy, Skitty, Mossy and Fergus all come with emotional baggage of their own, too, and attempt to establish a position in doggy barn hierarchy. One of them, Fergus, is eventually shot dead by a local farmer.
On the run and eschewing interaction with humans, McKenna builds a familial association and solid understanding of the psyche surrounding each member of his canine family.
He writes, “I sank down in the hay. ‘Hi everyone,’ I said miserably. I knew I couldn’t afford to get sad. These days I needed every scrap of energy just to survive. I’d better cheer myself up and fast. You’re okay, Martin. The dogs are your family now.”
As the memoir progresses, McKenna establishes that at times the six dogs “were like balls and chains” around his ankles, dragging at his freedom, recognizing that each had his/her idiosyncrasies while the pecking order never changes. That, he learns, is “the way the dogs keep themselves civilized” and maintaining peace.
He adds, “After a few months something had profoundly changed between the seven of us. I knew what it meant: the dogs had finally made me the leader of the gang.”
Recognizing that he can’t live this semi-hermit life forever McKenna slowly reaches out to former relations and his own family yet recognizing “the dogs taught me what real freedom tasted like and what pure happiness felt like.”
But this runaway adventure proves a solid educational adventure to a guy who hates school. What he learns from his canine family serves him well years later when he becomes recognized as the “Dog Man” in Australia.
“Dogs are like sponges, soaking up our human energy. Our bad energy as well as our good energy. It made me realize there were three important gifts we should constantly bring home for our dogs. Happiness. Calmness. Optimism.”
But a moving final tableau leaves the reader shaking his/her head when it comes time for McKenna to make a difficult decision how to move forward with his life. Will it be with his human or canine family? Some will be pleased, others won’t.
His canine family teaches him many key life lessons of how to deal with both two- and four-legged characters. “When I was around dogs I could truly be myself, and they generously gave me whatever they could – affection, attention, protection, and a sense of belonging. All for so little in return.
“. . . Dogs has taught me to be honorable around them. I didn’t steal from them. Or trick them. Or tease them. Or bully them. Or lie to them. I was proud of who I was when I was around them. I admired myself for the many sacrifices I made for them.”
The riveting story is packed with psychological gymnastics from cover to cover yet a sobering reminder throughout why dogs have historically been labeled “man’s best friend.”