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Fat dog? Try taping the fridge

A letter to the editor ridiculing a canine weight-loss drug brings the story of a pooch who raids the icebox.

February 04, 2007|John Woestendiek | Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — 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.

That "Slentrol" -- a new tool to fight canine obesity -- had won federal government approval struck Silberman 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 Baltimore 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. She pointed out in a subsequent letter that Silberman "has obviously not met my 90-pound Labrador mix, Nemo."

Yes, Larry, dogs can open refrigerators -- including assistance dogs, trained to help their handicapped masters, and 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 open the door by tugging on a dishtowel that has been wrapped around the handle.

But now we 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.

Nemo, as far as Augustyn knows, was originally from Havre de Grace, Md., 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, probably picked up from his days on the street. 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 amount of voltage he was zapped with when he tried to go through 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 once every couple months, he raids the refrigerator, removing pizza, chicken, macaroni and cheese, lunchmeat, and who knows what else. The Sun lent the family a video camera; now, Nemo's breaking-and-entering gig is on tape.

"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 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 the course of two hours during the night. At one point, he stands on his hind legs to reach items near the rear.

The family takes 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 Johns Hopkins University. Recently, they've started putting duct tape across the door at night to reinforce the seal. There have been no break-ins since.

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

According to Pfizer Inc., the maker of Slentrol, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration last month, 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 a little heavier than he should be, don't think Nemo has ever felt "a sense of fullness." They think they can control his weight, though, without resorting to Slentrol. All it should take is sensible eating, a little exercise and a lot of duct tape.

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