CREST dog loves his job Gwen Bittner / citrus chronicle

CREST School’s 7-year-old K-9 companion Tommy Lee has become quite the cuddly mascot in his five years at the transitional school.

Despite nearing typical retirement age for service dogs, Tommy Lee shows no signs of slowing interest when it comes to visiting students and staff.

“He’s getting close to his retirement age,” Tommy Lee’s owner and CREST Assistant Principal Callie Haynes said. “We’re going to push that off as long as we can. At this point when I say, ‘Do you want to go to work?’ he’s up at the front door.”

Service dogs usually stop working at the age of 7 or 8, but since Tommy Lee is a facility dog that doesn’t do a lot of heavy-lifting assistance, his tenure could extend to 9 or 10 years.

“Here he’s just everybody’s pet, almost,” Haynes said. “He’s assigned to the school, not to any individual.”

When Tommy Lee began at CREST — an acronym for Citrus Resource for Exceptional Student Transition — he was at the school four out of five days. In recent history, he visits two to three times a week.

“He’s not in the rooms as much as he used to be,” Haynes said. “We’ve tapered it off as he’s gotten a little older.”

The yellow lab and golden retriever mix forms special bonds with students by greeting, playing, cuddling and lending a helping paw.

“He’s done wonders, especially in behavior,” Haynes said. “If the kids want the opportunity to be with him they have to have the good behavior or else they’re not allowed. He’s used a lot for motivation. The kids will work really hard to be able to have time with him.”

Tommy Lee assists students, such as fourth-grader Hunter Ciampa, with emotional challenges.

“He has a calming technique with him,” Haynes said. “Hunter will take him to the playground sometimes.”

“He’s a fun playful dog,” Hunter said. “He likes to lie on my stomach sometimes and he’s with me a lot. He likes to play with water bottles. I like to throw water bottles and he likes to go play with them.”

The pup also motivates mobility in students with walkers by acting as a sweet reward.

“We’ll put him at one end of the hallway and they’re a lot more likely to get in their walker and go over to get to him,” Haynes said. “We also use him for communication. Students with articulation issues love to get him to bark. If they cannot say the command correctly he will not do it.”

Tommy Lee even spends time in the library being read to by students at the start of the day on the bus ramp.

“He’ll go to the media center and the kids will read with him,” Haynes said. “They just really love to be around him. He’s used by staff as much as he’s used by the students I’d say. He’s a stress reliever.”

“To me Tommy’s been just kind of a perfect example of how, really, a service animal can make such an impact on a school,” school board member Thomas Kennedy said.

“He’s been a great addition,” Haynes said. “He’s for everybody; he’s been a lot of fun.”

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