My neurotic dog Tully doesn’t like change. So imagine my astonishment when he lets me start brushing him | Jessie Cole

My dog, Tully, is neurotic. Sensitive, jumpy. He’s a working dog, a koolie cross kelpie, but in our forest homeplace in northern New South Wales he’s underemployed. My teenage son brought Tully home, unannounced, nine years ago. I didn’t research his breed before acquiring him as a scrappy pup, and we’d never had a working dog, so I wasn’t aware of their tendencies. Watchful, obsessive, loyal. Stick and ball enthusiasts. Pattern recognition experts. Tully will form a habit in a couple of days. Once formed, his habits are hard to extinguish. In older age, his behaviour has become somewhat obsessive-compulsive. He will only get in and out of the car from a particular door. If you do not immediately put his lead on when walking, he will stop until you do.

As a pup Tully had a skin condition which required weekly injections at the vet. In no time at all he had a full-blown vet phobia. The treatment went oral, the vet visits ceased. Tully gets snappy if he thinks you are searching his fur for ticks. In fact, if you look at his fur too intently, he gets agitated. He enjoys a gentle pat, an idle scratch behind the ear, long and loving eye contact, but if he senses an ulterior motive (medicine, tick search, bath) he quickly becomes uncooperative.

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Unfortunately, Tully is also quite accident prone. Over the years he has endured various emergency surgeries, usually for some kind of ball- or stick-related injury, the worst of which involved him refusing to enter the vet and being sedated on the street outside after head-butting me in the scuffle. I sat on the kerb, crying, one eye slowly bruising, while waiting for him to drop. After he passed out on the pavement, pedestrians walked around us – a weeping woman with a black eye and a dead-seeming dog – nodding sadly, some whispering, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” After that we got more savvy. Nowadays if a vet visit is needed, we sedate Tully beforehand and sneak in the back way while a vet nonchalantly bounces a ball for distraction purposes. It’s a team effort and it seems to do the trick.

Often, we don’t notice how fixed our habits have become until Tully balks at a variation. Our lives seem full of spontaneous moments until we realise that we obviously always open the same door in exactly the same way at exactly the same time. Tully is monitoring us. He is keeping track. When the order of things changes, he will let us know. Sometimes he sits down in protest and lets out a short staccato bark. Often it takes us a moment to understand what we’re doing differently. Habits that are so clear to him remain invisible to us. How little we truly see ourselves!

Lately I have been trying to introduce grooming. Tully does not do baths. If he gets dirty he will sometimes let me rub him down with a wet soapy wash cloth. This is our compromise. He is a high shedding dog, so I am keen to gather his fur with a brush before it all ends up on my floor. Yes, it has taken me nine years to decide on this course of action. All I can say in my defence is: sometimes life gets in the way. To my surprise, though wary of the hairbrush, Tully is not actively uncooperative. I call him to me and run the hairbrush lightly down his back. He does not fidget or snap at my hand, though he remains tense. After a few strokes he tries to move away. I let him but I call him back for a second go. We repeat this dance until the hairbrush is full. I hold out a treat, which he suspiciously sniffs but eventually takes gingerly between his teeth. He hides under the tank stand and slowly eats it. I feel triumphant but I try not to let it show.

I make a routine of it. Every morning I get the hairbrush and we do the dance. I call Tully over, he sits tense before me, I brush a few strokes along his spine, he slips away, I call him back, and repeat. At the end, a treat. We do this for weeks. Every day is the same.

And then something happens. A change. Partway through our routine, Tully stands up and stretches. His front legs are low to the ground, his tail high in the air. I am astonished. Is he enjoying it? I watch him carefully while I continue to brush. The tenseness is gone. He is luxuriating! He lets me brush more tender places: the insides of his legs, his underbelly. The next day at the designated time, he is waiting for me. I run the brush along his body and he arches with pleasure. This turn of events is unforeseen. My heart fills with lightness. In dog years, Tully is an old man but he can still learn new tricks.

  • Jessie Cole is the author of four books, most recently the memoirs Staying and Desire, A Reckoning