JUST AS A LITTLE GIRL NAMED VIRGINIA DID with her questions about Santa Claus, Lawrence Silberman chose a letter to the editor to express his misgivings about something he found hard to believe - the first weight loss medicine for dogs was hitting the market.

That "Slentrol" - a new tool to fight canine obesity - had won federal government approval struck Silberman, of Burtonsville, as silly. A far simpler course, it seemed to him, would be to feed your dog less.

As he put it in his letter to The Sun, "I've yet to see the dog that can use a can opener or open a refrigerator."

As is often the case with the published word, someone took issue - in this case, Marycatherine Augustyn of Lutherville, who pointed out in a subsequent letter to the editor that Silberman "has obviously not met my 90-pound Labrador mix, Nemo. ... "

Yes, Larry, dogs can open refrigerators - from assistance dogs, trained to help their handicapped masters, to the pooches of frat boys who, inspired by the old beer commercial, have spent countless hours teaching their dogs to fetch them cold brews. In both cases, dogs commonly pull the door open by tugging on a dishtowel that his been wrapped around the handle.

Beyond that, thanks to Silberman's letter, we now know there are also a handful like Nemo, who - with no training, no towel, no prompting - have figured out not just that there's food in that big cold box, but how to open it when no one's around.

Caught in the act
And unlike the answer to little Virginia's letter 110 years ago - perhaps the most famous newspaper editorial ever written ("Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus ... he exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist. ... ") - you don't have to take this one on faith.

We have video: baltimore sun.com/nemo.

Indisputable as the evidence is, don't be surprised if it generates more controversy in the letters to the editor column: "Can't your newspaper find more important issues to report on than dogs opening refrigerators?" readers may ask. (The answer is yes.) "How could the dog owners let him eat all that?" (They were sleeping.)

But such is the cost of documenting a phenomenon. Besides, Nemo - after his hour-long, covertly videotaped binge (during which he consumed two slices of pizza, a hunk of meatloaf, a pint of sour cream, some leftover soup and a snack-size apple sauce) - is entitled to his 15 minutes of fame.

Nemo, as far as Augustyn knows, was originally from Havre de Grace, where he was picked up as a stray. He ended up at Animal Rescue Inc., a no-kill shelter just across the Pennsylvania line. He was adopted by a New Yorker who returned him when Nemo failed to adapt to the apartment lifestyle. His next owner returned him, too, after Nemo failed to hit it off with the family cat.

About three years ago, Augustyn's husband, William Sciarillo, visited the shelter and found Nemo, then called Bingo and weighing about 60 pounds.

Nemo came with a few bad habits, most likely picked up from his days on the streets. Some of them may have contributed to the 30 pounds Nemo has gained since Sciarillo brought him home.

He barks a lot, has been known to forage in the garbage can and sometimes snatches food from people's hands. A hardheaded sort, he wouldn't stay in the yard until the family doubled the voltage he was zapped with when he tried to go past the electric fence. Once, Augustyn said, "I found him leaning up against the stove eating something out of a skillet that was still cooking."

And about once every couple of months he raided the refrigerator, removing pizza, chicken, macaroni and cheese, lunch meat, and who knows what else.

"He only does it when no one is home, or everyone's asleep," Augustyn said. "I suppose the trash on the floor in the morning is only circumstantial evidence, but he does act pretty guilty in the morning."

The family took his bad habits in stride.

"Nemo is a sweetheart. He's a great dog, and we can put up with a little night foraging," said Augustyn, 47, a member of the public-health faculty at the Johns Hopkins University. In the past couple of weeks, they've started putting a strip of duct tape across the door at night to reinforce the seal, and there have been no break-ins since.