Finding Nemo (in the fridge)

sun reporter

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

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.

When Augustyn saw Silberman's letter in the newspaper Jan. 9, she chuckled, and agreed with his point - she too thinks diet aids for dogs are silly. But as for the implication that dogs can't open refrigerators, she had to set the record straight, and give her dog his moment in the sun. Egged on by her husband, a prolific letter-to-the-editor writer, she wrote her first one.

Sciarillo is chairman of the Coalition for Healthy Maryland Children, and The Sun has published more than a dozen of his letters to the editor - on that cause and others - in the past five years.

"It's my hobby," admitted Sciarillo, 55, a children's health advocate who met Augustyn when both were students at Johns Hopkins.

After Augustyn's letter appeared, a reporter contacted her about her dog's behavior. She said she didn't know how Nemo managed to open the refrigerator - since he did so only when no one was around. "I guess the only way to know would be to train a video camera on the fridge at night," she added.

So a plan was hatched.

Using a video camera loaned to them by The Sun, and with technical support from their two children, Elias, 12, and Xavier, 9, they set up the camera, aiming it at the refrigerator before going to bed around midnight last Monday. For purposes of the experiment, they left the reinforcing piece of duct tape off.

The next morning, the mess was on the floor and the proof was in the camera.

The tape shows Nemo opening the refrigerator door with his snout, removing the pizza, opening it again, then making numerous return trips to the fridge over two hours. At one point, he stands on his hind legs to reach items near the rear. Most of the items were taken to the dining room and eaten, Augustyn said, based on where she found what remained.

Some others Nemo's behavior isn't one of a kind.

There are a handful of dogs-opening-refrigerators videos on, but most of those are dogs that have been trained to pull on a dishtowel on the handle. Author Jon Katz recounts refrigerator raids by his border collie, Orson, in the book Katz on Dogs. And online pet forums have several postings from dog owners who have faced the problem, including one in Alabama whose English setter "quickly learned to open the refrigerator door and choose her own snacks before we learned to bungee the door closed."

Others have turned to the "ScatMat," a pet-training device that emits a shock when stepped on. "We thought we were going to have to get rid of our black lab. ... He would use his paws to open the refrigerator door and feed himself while we were at work," reads one testimonial for the product. "The ScatMat did the trick."

"Dogs are creatures of habit and pattern," said Lorrie Krebs, a trainer for Best Friends Dog Obedience in Ellicott City. "Once they do something that yields what they consider to be positive results, they will do it over and over."

While she hasn't run into a client with a refrigerator-opening dog, Krebs said the bad habit could be broken by temporarily removing the payoff, or making the experience unpleasant by stacking lightweight pots and pans so that they will fall when the door is opened, scaring the dog enough that he won't try again.

Frieda Ulman, the manager of the Movie Time video store in Federal Hill, found a far more expensive solution: a new refrigerator.

Previously, about once a month, her 4-year-old, cheese-craving standard poodle, Maddi, would pry open her home refrigerator, which had a weak and leaky seal.

"I don't know how she was doing it, because I never saw her do it," Ulman said. One Thanksgiving, Maddi removed an entire uncooked turkey from the refrigerator, but instead of eating it, devoured about a pound of store-bought stuffing, which contained blue cheese.

Since Ulman invested in a new refrigerator three months ago, Maddi has yet to open it.

"Her favorite thing to eat is Parmesan cheese - the really good, fresh kind," Ulman said. "She's very picky. She's very bright. And she loves cheese."

With documented proof that some dogs can open refrigerators, the newspaper presented its findings over the phone to Silberman, who called Nemo's feat "impressive."

As it turns out, he has two dogs himself, both strays he took in off the street - Goldie and George. George, whom he found abandoned at a 7-Eleven, "helped get me through cancer," said Silberman, who has non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, now in remission.

Silberman, also a fairly regular letter-to-the-editor writer (five in the past five years), testified on behalf of a medical marijuana bill that passed Maryland's legislature in 2003. Despite his admiration for Nemo - all his dogs do, he said, is shed - he stood firm in his opinion about the new dog diet drug, and that the money used to research, develop and market it could probably have gone to better causes.

According to the federal government, dog obesity is on the rise, with nearly 40 percent of the nation's 62 million dogs being either overweight or obese.

According to Pfizer, the maker of Slentrol, which was approved this month by the Food and Drug Administration, the liquid medication works by reducing the amount of fat a dog can absorb and triggering a sense of fullness.

Nemo's owners, who admit he's maybe a little heavier than he should be, don't think Nemo has ever encountered "a sense of fullness." They think they can control his weight, though - and without resorting to Slentrol.

All it should take is sensible eating, a little exercise and a lot of duct tape.

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