VALRICO - Cynthia Moynihan's life changed after being paired with LaRue II, her beloved hearing dog.
"It's been a completely liberating experience," Moynihan said. "She's given me my freedom and independence."
Now Moynihan is hoping the American public will help her repay LaRue.
The three-year-old black Labrador/golden retriever mix is a nominee for the American Humane Association's Hero Dog Awards. Created in 2010, the awards honor canines who assist military personnel or law enforcement officials in the line of fire, lend their sight or hearing to human companions, and provide other forms of therapeutic support.
Moynihan, 50, said her hearing loss was first diagnosed in third grade and got progressively worse. Eight years ago, Moynihan found she was completely deaf without the use of hearing aids.
In September 2011, Moynihan was matched with LaRue after completing a rigorous Canine Companion for Independence (CCI) training session. The non-profit organization was founded in 1975, providing well-trained assistance dogs and subsequent support to maintain strong partnerships. LaRue II is the second CCI dog to carry that name.
"LaRue is a true hero to Cynthia," said Martha Johnson, public relations coordinator for the southeast region of CCI. "She helps alert her to key sounds and allows her to lead a more independent life."
Moynihan lists various ways LaRue has improved and enriched her life.
"First off, I can sleep at night," said Moynihan, a Valrico resident. "I have two sons and I used to sleep outside their door in case something happened.
"Some people don't even realize I have hearing loss, so she's helped make them more attentive; they see her and make sure to look at me when they speak," she continued. "My boys are also getting older, and now that I have LaRue there's more of a comfort level when they go off on their own."
LaRue is among 140 dogs competing in eight categories - emerging hero, guide, hearing, law enforcement and arson, military, search and rescue, service, and therapy - but is only one of three canines in the hearing category. Finalists in each category will be selected through public voting, which is currently underway and will continue until July 30.
The eight finalists will have a chance to walk a star-studded red carpet during the Oct. 5 ceremony in Los Angeles. Each finalist will receive a Hero Dog Award and $1,500 for a selected charity partner, while a prize for America's Top Hero Dog - selected by the public and a blue-ribbon celebrity panel - comes with an additional $5,000 for charity.
Moynihan, a hearing loss education advocate, loves LaRue, but hopes fewer and fewer people require her services.
"Our slogan is, 'Protect your ears so you can hear,'" Moynihan said. "I don't want anyone to need a dog like LaRue."
For information on the Hero Dog Awards and to cast a vote, visit www.herodogawards.org