Dog training ‘passion’ sparks a police K-9 business in Shelton

When he was an eighth grader, Erich Grasso read a passage in a book that made a lifelong impression: “Find your passion and pursue it.”

Grasso’s passion for breeding, selling and training German shepherds for police K-9 work and as pets has led to a successful career and a solid reputation with police departments all along the East Coast.

Although much of his work as owner of Grasso Shepherds involves importing and breeding dogs, he makes one point clear.

“I make a living from training, not selling,” Grasso said, and he trains between four and six dogs a month.

He supplies shepherds to police departments in Shelton and other Connecticut towns and cities, as well as New York City, Yonkers, N.Y., and the West Palm Beach, Fla., sheriff’s department.

Grasso is a Bridgeport native who bought two acres of land in Shelton to begin his training business.

He and his family own Family Pet and Grooming at 530 Shelton Avenue in Huntington, where they train and groom dogs and sell pet supplies and the special raw food that he feeds to his dogs and that’s also used for police dogs.

Early interest in dogs

“I was born into a house with three dogs,” Grasso said. “As a kid, I would put myself on a leash.”

He began to conduct $20 pet obedience lessons in 1994 when he was a high school senior. While attending college at the University of Central Florida, he forged ties with the K-9 unit at the Orlando Police Department.

Grasso earned an associate’s degree in criminal justice and a bachelor of science degree.

“My two loves were police work and dogs,” said Grasso, whose grandfather was a Bridgeport police officer. Although Grasso was hired as a police officer, he opted not to go to the police academy.

“At age 27, I wanted to start my own business,” he said.

Grasso worked at several occupations, including veterinary technician, mortgage broker, carpenter, and waiter, before starting as a full-time dog trainer in 2003.

Word of mouth

His business started through word of mouth. “In the beginning I trained dogs that nobody could train,” he said, including Rottweilers and pit bulls with biting issues.

These days he imports German shepherds from Europe from proven stock.

“I believe in going with dogs that are genetically bred to do this work,” he said, but he’s quick to point out a popular misconception. “Not every shepherd can be a police dog,” he said.

He starts training dogs when they’re 8 weeks old, concentrating on building their confidence. “You want the dog to think they’re king of the world and to feel like they’re Mike Tyson,” he said.

Versatility and drive

For police dogs, he looks for puppies that “rise above loud noises” and are comfortable walking on different types of surfaces.

“I want a dog that can’t get enough of [eating] food and [playing] ball,” he said. Police dogs need “food drive, ball drive and prey drive.”

They have to be prepared to work in all types of weather, including tracking a robber in 110-degree heat in Florida or in New England snowstorms.

“If they have the necessary drives, they’ll drive through the environmental factors,” Grasso said.

The shepherds Grasso trains have to be between 1 and 2 years old to be supplied to a police department.

“Maturity is a huge part,” he said. “Very young dogs don’t have the mental ability to do police work. I’m proud when the dog is truly ready for police work.”

An important factor in supplying dogs to the police is to earn the trust of the department, he said, and he conducts free training after the sale is completed.

Local departments

The Shelton Police Department acquired its current police dog Stryker from Grasso, who “has a good reputation,” said Detective Christopher Nugent, the department’s former K-9 handler.

The Bridgeport Police Department has bought dogs from Grasso for eight years because of “the quality of the dogs and the customer service,” said Bridgeport police Capt. Robert Evans, who’s in charge of that department’s K-9 unit.

“If there’s a problem, we know it will be addressed,” Evans said.

Good police dogs are loyal, intelligent, even-tempered, and socially friendly, Evans said, and have to be able to live with the handler’s family.

Grasso said in Bridgeport, “the police dogs see everything,” including domestic violence and major crime scenes, and are used to track missing persons and criminals, protect their handlers, control crowds, and “reduce injury of cops and people.”

'A non-lethal force'

“When the police get nervous, they call the canine,” he said. “Dogs are a non-lethal force and a great tool, but they have to be the right dog.”

Grasso said he’s seen one police dog instill more fear in criminals than several cruisers of police officers. “People have an innate fear of dogs,” he said.

At the same time, “dogs naturally are fearful of people,” so they have to be trained to bite and release, and recognize the sound of gunshots.

Trainers see benefits

Travis Plucinski, Grasso’s cousin, has been working with him as a trainer for about eight years. “It’s a unique profession,” he said.

Plucinski said he trains both family dogs and police dogs, picks up the dogs at the airport, and socializes them.

“I show them the world so they’re well-traveled,” he said. That includes trips to Home Depot and other local stores.

Plucinski works on puppy obedience and agitation work that involves donning “bite suits.”

Helping the community

Grasso’s work also includes training rescue dogs for the Lexus Project, a group that provides legal defense for dogs, and he conducts family dog training under the name “Dogs by Erich.”

He donates a dog to one family and to one police department each year “when it’s a cost issue.”

Recently, he donated a shepherd to a Shelton family with an 11-year-old boy. “We found the right dog,” he said. “I make sure the right dog goes to the right place.”

Training dogs is a 24-7 labor of love for him. “I always keep dogs with me,” he said. “I love to see dogs in police work. They become like human beings. They can rationalize.”

For him, dog training is the career of a lifetime. “It’s a total passion,” he said.