The dogfather

Giovanangelo is paid to walk dogs for busy middle-class people. It's a Nineties thing. By Nick Foulkes. Photographs by Dario Mitidieri
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The Independent Culture
Ask a conventionally enlightened, middle-class person about the sort of relationship he or she enjoys with the servants and the response might be a laugh, a blank look, or a politically correct diatribe that servants belong to the world of PG Wodehouse and Gordon Jackson in his pre-Professionals incarnation.

Along with stripped wood or sisal-covered floors, gas-powered flame-effect fires and carefully installed period features, however, there is one other hallmark of the middle-class home: the pounds 20 note stuck under a paperweight or candlestick to pay the cleaner, the maid, the gardener - or the dog- walker.

The two-income household has created a reservoir of wealth which irrigates a new servant culture. Just as the new middle classes are, increasingly, contract workers or consultants, so "servants" are no longer resident as they were in the Jeeves and Wooster years. They come and go. But they exist. From personal trainers to gardening experts, the executive classes rely on servants as much today as their counterparts did a century ago. Some surround themselves with a retinue which would not have disgraced the court of a Tudor monarch, one which allows a discreet form of snobbery to be exercised in the usage of the possessive pronoun: as in "my cleaner", "my feng shui man", "my personal trainer".

Dog-walking, a function virtually unknown outside the aristocracy 10 or even five years ago, is among the most interesting of these services; and Giovanangelo, a west London dog-walker, is typical of the new servant in that he is atypical. Like many other servants - the girl, say, who prepares and serves the canapes at your drinks party - he is educated (probably more so than the people for whom he works), committed, and slightly eccentric: a combination which defines, perhaps, the employer/servant relationship of the late 20th century. Today's servant is an equal who is, in many cases, likely to share a similar background, tastes and even friends with his or her employer. Giovanangelo, for example, inhabits a 19th-century house, complete with framed engravings and button-backed chairs, whose like is found in innumerable well-mannered streets from Chelsea to Chiswick.

He is a trim man with a goatee beard and a high forehead. He looks a bit like a 16th-century Italian nobleman on a visit to England, as immortalised in a miniature by Milliard. He was born and grew up in north-eastern Italy, and

hints, if questioned, at a background of decaying grandeur, with talk of holidays as a child on family land now developed into an Adriatic coastal resort. After reading medicine, then history, but graduating in neither, he left Padua in 1974, spent a few years in Latin America, and is now married to an English aristocrat.

He has been a professional dog-walker for a couple of years. His "clients", as he calls all 30 of them, include collies, cocker spaniels, border terriers, stag and basset hounds. His office is Richmond Park. His working day begins shortly before nine o'clock, when he switches on his mobile phone, leaves his neat Victorian house in Hammersmith, climbs into his company car, an impeccably clean N registration Vauxhall Astra estate (an indispensable business tool), and sets off to collect his clients.

The first hour and a half of any day is spent touring the streets of Hammersmith, Chiswick, Shepherd's Bush and the western reaches of Notting Hill, collecting dogs of every size, disposition and description, who bound forth evidently delighted at the prospect of his company. Occasionally, a human being appears at the door to apologise for not having the money today or to request that Giovanangelo look after a dog until it is convenient for him or her to be collected. But often he just picks through a huge ring of keys, jangling jailer-style, until he finds the right one to fit the complex configurations of Banhams and Chubbs: it is not just their dogs but their houses which owners entrust. Then, with about 10 dogs baying and growling in the back of his car, he heads towards Richmond Park, the noise eclipsing a Puccini aria broadcast by Classic FM as he parks and disgorges his charges.

A dog-walker surrounded by a seemingly large pack of random dogs is, perhaps, intimidating. Giovanangelo keeps them controlled as invisibly as sheepdogs direct flocks on One Man and his Dog. He will change the direction of his 90-minute yomp across the wintry parkscape to accommodate dogless walkers or joggers he encounters. Any dog, whether scrapping playfully or hunting, who disobeys his call to heel is attached to a leash. For Giovanangelo, unlike many dog owners, the dogs do not take the place of friends, spouses or children; they are... dogs, and their time spent with him is "a chance to be dogs" before returning to their domestic routine. "Dogs are highly intelligent and sensitive, with individual characteristics which are fascinating," he says, "and a dog has a right to express himself."

After at least 90 minutes in Richmond Park, the dogs are driven back to their owners and a second batch of dogs is collected and walked. Each dog - and there are 30 of them - is walked three times a week.

For Giovanangelo, the advantage is a healthy outdoor life. About money, he is cagey, although he will talk enviously of his dog-walking friend in Knightsbridge who can make a thousand pounds a week. He prefers to stress the agreeable nature of his occupation. "I've had dogs since I was able to walk," he says. "My first friends and companions were dogs." To those who regard his job as merely a ruse to get paid for doing something he likes, it is in a voice which is only slightly ironic that he asks them to think of the "heroic dog-walker" who braves searing heat, driving rain and biting winds for the well-being of their favourite animal.

And to the person who argues that dog-walkers should not exist when owners can walk the pet themselves, Giovanangelo has a logical answer: "Therefore, baby-sitters shouldn't exist, either"