NEW CANAAN — When many people think of their co-workers, the words furry, playful and slobbery don’t always come to mind. But for Officer David Rivera of the New Canaan Police Department, that just about sums his patrol partner up.

“I have a full-time partner. The only difference is he never argues with me and loves me unconditionally,” Rivera said with a laugh.

Rivera’s partner is Apollo, an 85-pound German Shepard, the only dog in New Canaan’s K-9 unit. But don’t mistake Apollo for a pet. He’s like any other officer in the department, working to keep the streets of New Canaan safe.

New Canaan began their K-9 program in the 1980s with a dog named Ex. Ex worked until the 1990s, but the program ended when he retired. It started up again around 2009, out of an increased need for canine assistance.

“Part of the reason we restarted the program is because in 2000s, there weren’t all that many K-9 programs around, so when we needed [a dog], none were available,” said Chief of Police Leon Krolikowski. “We wanted to make sure we were able to provide that service to the community.”

There’s been three canines since New Canaan rebooted their program, which is funded by town donations. The first, Zira, developed a spinal problem and retired after a year and a half. The following dog, Rocky, died several months after training when he choked on a ball. Then last year, several years after Rocky’s passing, the department got Apollo.

Rivera was also new to New Canaan when Apollo came to the station. Prior to this, Rivera worked in Bridgeport, patrolling one of the most dangerous areas of the city. Rivera had a partner and found he missed that aspect in New Canaan, where he worked patrol alone.

Rivera had also recently gotten his own German Shepherd puppy named Ace. His love for dogs, plus his desire to have a partner again, motivated him to apply to become the K-9 officer.

“Generally, when we interview, we have a K-9 handler from another agency sit in on the interview panel, because they know more than we do the specifics of what’s needed to handle a canine, the drive and the energy you need and the work,” said Krolikowski. “It’s really a lot of work.”

Rivera believes it was luck and his experience with German Shepherds that helped him get the role.

“I think one of biggest fears for department was to give someone a dog and have to take it back because handler couldn’t handle it,” he said.

But a combination of love of dogs, partnership and a desire to make a difference made Rivera the right fit.

Rivera’s full time dog became training the “green” pup. For 10-12 weeks, Rivera and Apollo went to a training program where Apollo learned how to track missing people, locate and apprehend suspects and detect narcotics. At home, Rivera did additional training, including feeding Apollo out of his own hands for several months in order to form a bond.

“It’s a pretty intensive training program and more or less,” said Krolikowski. “The dogs are kind of like Olympic athletes of dogs.”

Like Olympic preparation, training a police dog is time consuming and has downsides. When Rivera was chosen as the K-9 officer, his wife was nine months pregnant with their son. He missed a day of training when she gave birth on a Friday, but had to be back at training on Monday.

“She wasn’t so thrilled, but she knows it’s something I really wanted to do, so she has been a great support with the whole thing,” Rivera said. “She knows that I love it, so she’s cool with it.”

A year later, life is still a balancing act with his wife, a toddler, Apollo and another dog at home.

“You have to balance your time. I have to give Apollo a certain amount of time, I have to give Ace a certain amount of time, and then my son gets the rest, which is most of the time. It’s a juggling act,” Rivera said. “But I can’t neglect any one of them. People don’t understand that having a working canine is a 24/7 job. It’s all the time.”

A day with Apollo is different from a day with any other pet. Apollo lives outside where he has a large kennel. He can’t live inside, because his coat needs to adjust to the weather so he can work outdoors. He eats exactly at 7 in the morning and 7 at night to avoid digestive problems. He plays with Ace, but doesn’t interact with other members of Rivera’s family. And even on days off, Rivera does training with Apollo.

“These skills are perishable, so we have to keep on building,” Rivera said. “Everyday we’re doing something. It’s more to keep him excited and willing and ready to work.”

And Apollo is always ready to work. He sleeps in the spot next to the gate nearest to Rivera’s patrol car and runs right to it when it’s time for a shift to start.

“It’s funny to see how much he loves his job,” Rivera said. “He associates his life and fun with that car. He knows that when we’re in there, we’re going to do something fun.”

Rivera and Apollo work 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. for two days a week and then 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. for three days. They’re in charge of patrolling the west side of town where they do motor vehicle stops, hunt for narcotics and keep an eye out for anything suspicious. When they’re patrolling, Rivera is doing training exercises with Apollo. But if Apollo isn’t needed, he’s in the car which is specially equipped with a kennel for him in the back.

“If I deem it a situation where Apollo would be an asset, he’s out by my side. But most of the time he’s in my car until I need him,” Rivera said. “Apollo’s a tool. We keep the tool in the toolbox until you need that tool.”

Apollo is usually used for cases with a missing person, drugs, or a burglary. In the year he’s been working, he’s assisted with seven missing people, made over 20 narcotics arrests and even located a Fairfield burglary suspect.

While Apollo doesn’t always nab the suspect, his assistance helps narrow down where officers may search. His ability to sniff out where a robber tried to break into a jewelry box in one home helped officers know where to dust for fingerprints.

Often by the time Apollo gets to the scene, the suspect has fled too far to find.

“I would love to catch a burglar in the act. That would be fantastic,” Rivera said. “If there’s any possibility of us catching the bad guy, he’s a great tool to have, but there’s so many other factors that take place.”

Apollo’s work is not just catching criminals. The department also uses him as a big aspect for community relations and he often does demonstrations for various groups in town.

“People love dogs,” Rivera said. “We put our lives in danger every single day to protect people and it’s tough nowadays. It’s tough being a cop. But Apollo helps bridge that gap and allows me and other officers to explain why we do what we do and he makes it fun.”

Apollo also eases some of the strain of being cop as acting as protection for Rivera when he’s out on patrol. He is trained to protect his officer at all times and may be sent in to clear buildings for safety in some situations.

“Cops get scared. So, if I felt that there was a situation that gets dangerous, Apollo’s out by my side,” Rivera said. “I look after him like he looks after me. I would never put Apollo in a position where I knew he wasn’t going to succeed. But, Apollo has to do his job. He’s a working canine, just like the canines you see in Afghanistan or Iraq. At times, they make that ultimate sacrifice. I would never wish — that’s my dog. I would never wish for that to ever happen, but that’s his job and it’s his job to make sure town residents are safe. It’s a pretty cool thing when you have an animal that is so dedicated to his job and his owner.”

When Apollo’ retires, Rivera will buy him from the town and keep him as a pet. While the transition from working dog to house dog will be tough — Apollo has never known a life other than work — the close relationship between him and Rivera will make things easier.

Even after Apollo retires, Rivera would like to continue working with canines, perhaps with a Labrador, which the department hopes to get soon. While the work is tough, he said it’s nonetheless fulfilling.

“I have the best job in the world,” he said. “It’s tough too. It’s a lot of work. But it is the best job.”

ekayata@hearstmediact.com; @erin_kayata