If you're a "tall, gangly, butterfingered" klutz, a job amid priceless treasures at Sotheby's London auction house may not be the best fit. Kate MacDougall discovered that fact the expensive way when, as a 26-year-old back-office helper in 2006, she executed such maneuvers as knocking "porcelain, mid-nineteenth-century and exceptionally ugly" pigeons off her desk and spilling soup onto Persian rugs. Plus, she was bored.
Then she met a man who dog-walked "a beautiful stracciatella-colored cocker spaniel" for an actress "whose name he dropped like breadcrumbs."
MacDougall sensed an opportunity. She handed in her notice and started a business that had yet to become mainstream, that of professional dog walker. Her ever-concerned mum gave her a list of reasons not to make the move, starting with, "This is a GHASTLY mistake."
Yet here she is, one thriving business later and telling her story. "London's Number One Dog Walking Agency," a charming account of her dog-walking career, is the latest nonfiction book about off-the-beaten-path vocations, like Shaun Bythell's diaries about running a secondhand Scottish bookshop. As with its predecessors, MacDougall's mixes work details with portraits of eccentric customers and colleagues.
The book is filled with humor, if occasionally forced, as with the breadcrumbs line. Populating this book are quirky clients with odd demands, from those whose dogs "only drank Evian and wanted a bedtime story" to wealthy customers who used pet cams to monitor Kate's and their dogs' behavior.
Yet the book also has touches of melancholy. It's never lost on MacDougall that many clients are more prosperous and settled than she is. Her mum means well, but she doesn't help when she advises her to get a proper vocation and buy household items all women need, such as extra towels and a gravy boat.
She's a great character, but the most prominent family member is Finlay, MacDougall's boyfriend and eventual husband, who reminds her at the outset, "I hate. All. Dogs," yet learns to accept his partner's vocation.
The stars of the book are the dogs, about whom MacDougall writes with obvious affection. Among them are a Labrador puppy with "enough energy to power half of south London" and Mabel, the Jack Russell she and Finlay buy, whose head "liked to rest slightly to the right as if she might be in the thick of solving a murder."
The book gets repetitive after a while, but MacDougall's writing is always witty and evocative, as when she describes a client's house with "hand-painted window boxes and a bondage shop around the corner" and the husky "who looked uncannily like Rod Stewart from the mid-1980s." MacDougall may be a menace to porcelain pigeons, but as a writer, she's no klutz.
Michael Magras is a freelance book critic. His work has appeared in the Economist, Times Literary Supplement, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Kirkus Reviews and BookPage.
London's Number One Dog-Walking Agency
By: Kate MacDougall.
Publisher: William Morrow, 304 pages, $27.99.