DARIEN — When Darien police officers arrived to an overnight accident scene with a face imprint on the windshield, but no injured passenger in sight, they knew it was time to get a police dog.

“The necessity to have a police canine at that point, there was no question,” Sgt. Jeremiah Marron, one of the officers who helped start the program said. “We called the state police, state police came and did a track from the car wreck location, [and] ended up finding the operator. I believe he was completely naked and lying in a riverbank, probably a mile away. He was sure to die if we didn’t find him. He was already hypothermic and did have head injuries. That following week, we made the decision to move forward with it.”

Darien had been looking into getting a dog since 2007, but after that accident in the winter of 2008, the department got the go ahead to get a dog. In March 2009, Zulu, a black German Shepherd, joined the force as Darien’s first canine.

Handling Zulu is Officer Nick Aranzullo (the similar names are coincidence), who joined Darien police in 2005. Aranzullo played a large part in establishing the K-9 program through research and budget planning.

“At that point, we were constantly calling in dogs from outside,” Aranzullo said. “Stamford didn’t have any dogs, Norwalk had a few. So, a lot of times we were getting dogs from Ridgefield, Greenwich and that holds up everything. You start to feel more of a burden, so we realized at that point ‘Why don’t we have a dog here?’”

Aranzullo decided to apply to become the K-9 officer to for the opportunities the role afforded. Since Darien’s K-9 program began when many other towns didn’t have one, Aranzullo said he’s gotten the chance to work in many other towns on cases he wouldn’t normally get in Darien.

“I wanted to do something more than what I was at that point,” said Aranzullo. “At that point, we were getting more of an influx of narcotics activity trafficking through town. In order to actually have some sort of impact on that, you have to search cars and a lot of times, the only way to search the car is to have the probable cause of a dog hitting on the odor of narcotics. I was interested in doing that kind of stuff and I thought it’d be a benefit for the town to have a dog if a kid or an elderly patient goes missing. It was kind of multi-faceted. A lot of it was because I wanted to do something more.”

Aranzullo got Zulu when he was about one and a half years old. Like all police canines, Zulu had to go through intense training both at home and for work for three months. Aranzullo had training homework to do with Zulu at home, on top of going to training classes.

Aranzullo admitted the process was daunting at first.

“When Sgt. Marron and I started the program, everything sounds great in theory and then all of a sudden, here’s the dog,” Aranzullo said. “All of a sudden, I’m sitting at my condo with a German Shepard that’s trained in police work and I’m like ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.”

The officer also had to bond with his new dog. For months, Aranzullo fed Zulu out of his own hands and took him outside on a leash every time he had to go to the bathroom, even in the middle of the night.

“The big thing in the beginning was they want you to develop a strong bond with the dog. Probably contrary to what a lot of people understand, it’s a lot of positive reinforcement,” Aranzullo said. “The dog has to trust you and want to work for you. If he eats, you’re feeding him out of your hands. If he goes to the bathroom, you’re taking him out. It’s all stuff so he starts to learn and couple [you] with positive stuff. That's how you build that bond which is a big part of the foundation to get them to work for us and listen to us.”

Zulu officially went into service in July 2009. Since then, he’s played a role in numerous narcotics arrests, as well as helped locate missing people and suspects. Notably, he’s located suspects in a Greenwich car theft, as well as suspects in a break-in at the animal hospital in Darien that treats him. Early on in his career, he was often called into other towns, but now that many other departments have established their own programs, the demand has slowed.

While many police dogs also do community relations, Zulu’s personality makes him less suitable for being around large groups of people. His protective instinct for his handler is strong and he’s been know to get aggressive when people roughhouse or approach Aranzullo in a way that the canine perceives as threatening.

“He’s very loyal. He knows when you throw that switch and it’s time to work. He’s good at what he does,” said Marron. “We didn’t want a dog that everyone can come and pet. A lot of people are afraid of him, because he is intimidating looking. I spend so much time with him, he’s like a big teddy bear to me, but he’s not like that with everybody.”

“He’s like my best friend. He’s very friendly,” Aranzullo added. “But they key off certain things. They’re protective of the handlers and that’s one of the things expected of the dogs. He’s gentle when he’s not in a situation where he feels like he’s threatened and I’m threatened. It’s when he feels like he needs to do his job that he responds to it.”

Zulu’s protective nature extends to Aranzullo’s family as well. Aranzullo and his wife welcomed triplets in May and the officer says the dog appears to check on the babies whenever they start crying. Zulu also barks whenever someone comes to the house, an inconvenience, Aranzullo said, when it comes to having people over.

Watching over the Aranzullos will soon be Zulu’s full time job. After seven years of service, Zulu is old enough to retire. The department is already in the process of finding a new canine for the program.

“He’s hit that point where he’s in his golden years,” said Marron. “He’s right there on the cusp of being considered a senior canine as far as age goes.”

Aranzullo will be replaced as well. His home life demands are too much right now to keep up with the 24/7 work required of a K-9 officer and he’s ready to do something new.

“It’s a lot of work for my wife and I right now, keeping up with just feeding the kids,” Aranzullo said. “For me to have the responsibility of the dog and if the phone rings at three o’clock in the morning and they need the dog somewhere and I have to run out...it’s a pretty big impact on the family dynamic. I don't want to see the program nosedive because I’m not able to do it anymore the way I should be.”

Aranzullo said he’d also like to step back to see another officer try the job.

“I’m getting to the point in my career where I’d like to explore other avenues of where I want to go in the department,” he said. “I’d like to see some of the newer people coming on have the opportunity to do this before they lose any interest that they have. I think it’s a good time to step back and hand it to somebody else.”

The department is currently interviewing candidates for the new position, as well as looking for a new dog. When the new dog is trained, Aranzullo will step down and take Zulu home as a pet, most likely before the end of the year.

In addition to replacing Zulu, the department is also looking to add a second canine to their program.

“We have explored the option of adding a second canine. That’s something that’s been brought up to the police commission for discussion, but at this point it’s just for discussion,” said Chief of Police Duane Lovello. “We do believe the canine function is essential to the operations of the department. He’s proven his value and it’s a positive asset not only for the department, but for the region.”

It is the hard work of Zulu and Aranzullo that made the first “round” of the K-9 become a success and an investment for growth.

“It’s not just about driving around in a car that says ‘Police K-9,” said Marron. “There’s a huge responsibility that’s attached to it. There’s war stories out there and we’re very happy to say we haven’t had any of those incidents. I attribute that to the hard working regiment that Nick stuck to. If it didn’t work this time around, we couldn’t keep it going. But not only are we looking to keep it going, but to potentially expand it as well.”

ekayata@hearstmediact.com; @erin_kayata