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Audiology Student Breaks Barriers With Service Animal

Lauren Armstrong (pictured with her service dog, Elroy) is a first-year student in UTHSC’s Clinical Doctorate in Audiology program in Knoxville. (Photos by Canine Companions for Independence)

Lauren Armstrong’s Golden Lab cross Elroy is her personal alarm clock every morning.

“He wakes me up every morning to my alarm and helps me cook breakfast by alerting me to a timer, which is essential if I am cooking anything in the oven,” she said.

To the average person, this may seem like an everyday activity, but Elroy is much more than Armstrong’s companion. He is her service animal. Armstrong was born with bilateral profound sensorineural hearing loss, or hearing loss in both ears.

Armstrong recently began her first year in UTHSC’s Clinical Doctorate in Audiology program in Knoxville. Elroy accompanies her to class and will eventually join her on clinical rotations. “At first, I did not want to do audiology, but the more I became in tune with my hearing loss and this incredible field, I realized that I could make a difference.”

A Knoxville native, Armstrong has been able to hear with the assistance of cochlear implants. However, when she decided to attend graduate school at UTHSC, she knew she had to take a different path to remain independent, since her implants failed at times.  At the urging of her mother, Armstrong began her search for a service dog. “We found a Canine Companions for Independence puppy that was being raised at PetSmart and went from there,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong has hearing loss in both ears and was provided Elroy through Canine Companions for Independence, an organization that provides service animals to disabled individuals at no cost to them.

Canine Companions for Independence is a nonprofit organization that provides assistance dogs at no charge to disabled individuals who need them. The dogs are extensively trained in various areas. On average, about 10 percent of the organization’s placements are for hearing dogs.

“If my name is called, Elroy alerts me,” Armstrong said. “This is extremely helpful so that I don’t miss important conversations or information. Even when he is not alerting me, he is aware of his surroundings, which cues me in on where sounds are coming from. His duties are to be my ears. He catches things I would never hear.”

“Lauren is a strong self-advocate and has broken many barriers faced by individuals with profound hearing loss, including studying for an advanced graduate degree,” said Ashley Harkrider, PhD, UTAA Distinguished Service Professor and chair in the Department of Audiology and Speech Pathology. “Elroy provides her with added support and confidence to live her life independently and comfortably in public settings. The presence of support animals will probably become more commonplace in the higher education setting as an increasing number of individuals with profound hearing loss earn Doctor of Audiology degrees.”

Armstrong is looking forward to her future at UTHSC. “I can’t wait to connect with patients and parents because I believe the connection creates a foundation that will allow them to grow and flourish,” she said.