By Haley Miller
Nugget, a 2-year-old golden retriever lab mix, failed her service dog training because of a personality trait she just can’t control. She’s just too friendly.
So, Nugget’s caregiver, Connie Sivertson, switched career paths for Nugget, who is a facility dog at Lawrence North High School to provide emotional support, stress relief and social engagement for students and staff.
“We come to school and she is so excited to interact with students,” Sivertson said. “Some days, (she’s) too excited. We’re working on manners.”
Sivertson, a school counselor at Lawrence North, pushed for a full-time facility dog after seeing the overwhelmingly positive reaction to bringing in emotional support dogs temporarily during final exam weeks. Lawrence North applied and received approval for Nugget through the Indiana Canine Assistance Network. Nugget started at the end of January.
Sivertson said Nugget aligns with her department’s goal of implementing a wide range of tools to reach students and improve their mental health.
“Over the last six or seven years, our counseling department has really tried to put a focus on social/emotional learning, on mindfulness, on gratitude,” Sivertson said. “(We’re) really trying to use a lot of those philosophies around helping teach students how to handle stress.”
Nugget helps address many different mental health concerns for students. She can soothe anxiety and help with depression. Sivertson said Nugget bonds with students who might struggle expressing their feelings verbally.
When the Lawrence North community faced a student’s death, Sivertson said she witnessed Nugget calm students and give them a momentary break from their grief.
“She provides something we cannot,” Sivertson said. “She is furry and loving and unconditional, and there is something she provides in that ability to absorb energy, especially that heavy emotional energy.”
When she isn’t on the job, Nugget gets to spend some time being a family dog. She stays with Sivertson in the evenings and on weekends. So far, Sivertson said Nugget has been highly adaptable, intelligent and well behaved.
“It is absolutely amazing to watch her approach a kid and see somebody who’s a little bit hesitant or doesn’t look like they’re terribly engaged in school,” Sivertson said. “She is a complete icebreaker. She diffuses that.”
Nugget visits classrooms, greets students as they pass in the hallways and even stars in a TikTok account created by Sivertson, @nugget_the_facility_dog. Students and staff also can drop by and interact with Nugget in Sivertson’s office.
Nugget interacts with a minimum of 100 people and a maximum of 300 to 400 people, depending on the day, Sivertson said.
“It’s not unusual for me to be in the middle of a meeting and (hear) a knock on my door, and a student says, ‘Can I come in and sit with Nugget?’” Sivertson said. “Some days it’s adults that come in and say, ‘I’m gonna need a minute with Nugget.’ Whoever it is, she is available to it and she loves to be part of it.”
Sivertson’s relationship with Nugget
As the primary caregiver, school counselor Connie Sivertson has a special relationship with Nugget. They arrive at school together, train together, interact with students together and leave at the end of every school day together.
“I’m her person right now,” Sivertson said.
After Nugget trained with the Indiana Canine Assistance Network, Sivertson participated in team training for three days to bond with Nugget and use cues. Nugget knows cues for walking, down, stay, rolling to the side for grooming and pulling a cabinet door open, among many others.
“She went home with me the second night of training, slept 6 feet from my bed,” Sivertson said. “We came back the next morning, and you could just see that after having spent that time together, there was already a connection.”