WESTPORT — Police added a new member to the force this week to help combat rising drug abuse and a recent increase in heroin overdoses in the area: 19-month-old German shepherd Atlas.

The new police dog took an unusual path to service. While most dogs join a department at 1 or 2 years old, Atlas’ handler, Officer David Scinto, has owned him since he was 8 weeks old, giving the pair more than a year already to bond.

“Me and him kind of have a closer bond than [most officers and their dogs do initially] because I’ve been raising him since he was a little puppy,” Scinto said.

When Westport police issued a dog to another officer, bring the department’s total up to two, Scinto did not think the department would be getting another and decided to get a personal dog instead.

He chose a German shepherd because he grew up around the dogs. He believed, however, he would be getting a different dog until the day he picked Atlas up at Shelton-based Grasso Shepherds and found out there was a black dog available.

“Me and him hit it off immediately,” Scinto said. “He’s from a police line of very high drive. They’re a lot different than normal, typical shepherds — always have to do things, always looking around trying to find something to do.”

Atlas is from a family of police dogs, with brothers working as police dogs in Milford and Bridgeport, as well as a brother in the K9 academy in Seymour, Scinto said.

Although Scinto got Atlas as a pet, it turned out the Westport Police Department was not finished expanding their canine helpers. When the department put out a memo for officers to apply to be a K9 handler, Scinto applied, interviewed and then offered to bring Atlas on board to the unit.

“We’re in a testing phase that he’s doing phenomenal in,” Scinto said. “Much better than we could have ever hoped for.”

Partners

Scinto became an officer in Orange in 2011 and transferred to Westport about three and a half years ago. He has since worked in the patrol division and as part of the Southeast regional Emergency Response Team. But Scinto, who grew up with family that were police K9 handlers, had long hoped to join the unit.

“It’s kind of like the dream when you’re a little kid,” he said. “You want to be a cop and have a dog. So it’s been something I wanted to do since I was a little kid.”

Growing up around K9 officers, Scinto saw the job’s challenges, but also that training a successful police dog can be an asset to not only a cop’s department, but the entire region. Police dogs are often shared by area departments if a town or city needs, but does not have a dog, or one on duty.

“Anybody can be given a dog, not everybody can have a good dog,” he said. “It requires a lot of work and dedication to it and it’s something that shows.”

Living with Atlas, for Scinto, has required essentially childproofing his house and a lot of attention. He called the experience similar to having a little kid around. If he leaves Atlas alone, with the high drive he is being trained to maintain, the Shepherd will go through the garbage or search through the house.

In the academy

Atlas — with Scinto at his side — is in the K9 police academy. He began on July 29 in the program, which will be two days a week until Aug. 22. At the end of August, Atlas will begin attending full-time until he is set to graduate with certifications in patrol and narcotics detection on Oct. 7.

Even while the academy is part-time, Scinto has been training Atlas every day. The obedience work, tracking practice and imprinting — learning to sniff out towels soaked in narcotics — that Atlas is learning now will help lay down a solid foundation for him to learn, Scinto added. He called round-the-clock training with Atlas a bit like going back to college.

As a patrol dog, Atlas will learn to protect Scinto, apprehend criminals through biting and track a missing person or suspect. To help combat drug crime, Atlas will learn to sniff out heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana, Scinto said.

In the case of a vehicle stop where police suspect drug possession, Atlas could be called in to sniff around the car, which would not require a search warrant but could give police probable cause.

“The way their noses work is that if you put a Big Mac on the table, we smell a Big Mac, a hamburger,” Scinto said.

“They can smell the bun, the sesame seeds, the lettuce. They can break everything down.”

Atlas has drive and constant energy, key factors Scinto identified for a successful police dog. Atlas has “no quit” and will run after a ball again and again. Scinto will aim to harness that “play drive” into “work drive.”

Fighting an epidemic

Scinto identified the need for another dog in the K9 Unit as a result of the heroin epidemic now facing the state and most of the United States. Westport, he said, has not been able to escape it.

“We’ve seen an explosion of heroin or any kind of opioids,” Scinto said.

Adding Atlas, he believes, will be another deterrent to people driving through Westport with drugs and dealing in town.

“This is a good way, not just to get people in jail, but it’s when you stop the guy who’s going to go deal to the 16-year-old kid who could possibly overdose down the road,” Scinto said. “This is a great way to prevent that.”

Atlas will join police dogs Koda and Chase as the town’s third K9. Westport’s K9 Unit is funded through donations, according to a department press release. Police launched a Go Fund Me page on July 29, hoping for $15,000 to train, equip and care for Atlas.

Lweiss@hearstmediact.com; @LauraEWeiss16