When it came time to take yearbook photos for the graduating fifth-graders at Orange City Elementary School in Florida, everyone agreed that Linda, one very special service dog, deserved a moment to shine, too.
Linda, a 4-year-old yellow lab, attends school with Rachel Watton, an 11-year-old with spina bifida, a birth defect that affects the baby's spine. The companion dog helps Rachel navigate in her wheelchair.
Rachel's mom, Heidi Race, told TODAY that Linda "opens doors and picks things up" — but more importantly, she's Rachel's very best friend.
According to Race, the pair are “two peas in a pod,” and Rachel’s happiest fifth grade days were the ones she spent with Linda by her side.
Beyond just picking up Rachel’s pencil whenever it fell off her desk, Linda supported Rachel, as well as her classmates, every time they came to school.
“Linda would be there to help with tests when the kids started to get anxious or nervous," said Race, who often volunteered in the classroom. "She’s very intuitive — and she’d go over and the kid would pet her, give her some love. She gave them a break to calm down."
Rachel’s fifth grade teacher, Ashley Desmond, always appreciated Linda’s love and support, too.
“It’s amazing the change that I have seen in my students and how (she's) brought us all together as a family,” Desmond told TODAY. “She’s really become the mascot of Orange City Elementary.”
Linda not only appeared in the yearbook, but she also received special recognition at the school’s graduation service. Principal Charlie Bynum awarded Linda a plaque of honor for the pup's three years of dedicated service at Orange City Elementary.
“I thought the award might be for Rachel,” said Race of Bynum’s initial praise. “They’re so much the same, Linda and Rachel. They’re always helping others and always there for people.”
When the fifth grade class walked off toward middle school, Rachel and her mom promised that Linda would be back to Orange City Elementary for visits.
“Linda is as much of a figure in that school as any student,” said Race. “She’s therapy for everyone.”