- Associated Press - Saturday, December 14, 2019

MASON CITY, Iowa (AP) - Students at Mason City Alternative School receive a warm smile and happy cuddles every day as they walk into the building, thanks to a certain fuzzy therapy dog.

Nugget, a 4-year-old Jack Russell/Chihuahua mix, was first brought into the school in April after she was certified as a therapy dog by her owner Katie Fistler, a supervisor at the school.

“Her main job is just to provide comfort to students, and she does a pretty good job of that,” Fistler told the Globe Gazette.

Allergies are no issue, as Nugget is hypoallergenic, which Fistler said is one of the cool things about her and was part of her testing when she was taken to the vet.

Fistler adopted Nugget about three years ago after she was rescued from the streets in Mexico and brought to Colorado, where Fistler’s sister was asked to foster the puppy, she said.

Her sister knew Fistler was looking for a dog, and suggested she adopt Nugget, whose name was Shirley at the time.

Once Fistler adopted the puppy, she “just knew that she was special.”

“She just had a rough life – she was kind of a street dog – and so I think she just came into our family, and I thought she has something special about her,” Fistler said.

Fistler said she always thought of getting Nugget certified as a therapy dog, so at the beginning of the school year, she started researching how to do that. The process included getting her vaccinations updated, providing documents on the dog’s history and behavior, obtaining training certificates and proving that she communicates with Fistler. Two weeks later, in April, her certification kit came in.

Since Fistler started bringing Nugget to the school, the dog has developed a routine, learning when it is time for lunch, gym and history class, her three favorite classes, and when it is time for her nap – around 1:30 p.m.

“She’s been awesome,” Fistler said. “Kids love her. She has her little routines. She’s just a part of the family here at the Alternative School.”

Fistler said she brought Nugget to the school because she thought it would be a great place for her to be, and now Nugget looks forward to going to work every day.

“On the weekends, she’ll go to the door, like, ‘Are we going to work? Are we going?’” Fistler said. “She just loves it.”

The students especially love her. Fistler said she receives comments that if a student is having a bad day, when they see Nugget greeting them at the door, all their problems seem to melt away and they feel so much better.

“That made me feel like, OK, yup, she’s the right one for this job,” she said. “…These kids are dealing with all sorts of stuff, and Nugget just sits on their lap and they just pet Nugget, and they’re able to talk about whatever is bothering them that day or issues maybe they’re going through, and it feels like just the calming presence of a dog really helps the kids.”

Alternative school student Kylie Simon, 16, said Nugget makes it much easier to come to school because, if a student is sad, she will come up to them and “love on you” with her squeaky toys.

Student Paige Nelson, 17, said she comes to school early in the morning and loves seeing Nugget “have the zoomies” and run back and forth between classrooms.

“It’s so sweet because it just shows how much she wants to see us,” Nelson said. “Yeah, she’s like this tiny little dog, but she really loves us.”

“She’s a great dog, and I’m glad she comes to the school with us to help us out,” she said. “I feel like she’s improved the school in multiple ways like Katie.”

Nelson and Simon enrolled in the Alternative School last year, and Nelson said the environment has been happier and healthier since Nugget started coming there.

“She just has brought more of a light to coming in, and it’s more of a happier environment,” she said. “You don’t feel the anger that there is here. You just walk in and you just have to have a smile because you see Nugget walking around and help everybody.”

Nugget has free range in the school building, and Fistler said she seems to find the kids who need her the most. “Nugget is their dog, too,” she said.

The little dog sits in on some classes and even has her own faculty ID badge. She knows she can come in if the door is open, and knows which staff members have little treats at their desks for her.

The school also has a couple fish, along with a pet turtle named Bob, who is Nugget’s best friend.

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