Astro, wearing his medical assistance vest, has given peace of mind to Adam Dunn, who is having a bounce-back season with the White Sox.
Updated: August 10, 2012 6:31AM
Little Brady Dunn probably doesn’t know it yet, but his puppy, Astro, is destined to become more than a best friend.
He might become a lifesaver.
For now, the poodle/golden retriever mix is Brady’s new pet. But for his parents, White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn and wife Rachel, Astro is the newest option to help keep things normal for their oldest child, who has epilepsy.
Only 7 months old, Astro already is in training to be a medical-assistance dog who will be 5-year-old Brady’s “shadow.”
“Our hope is that Astro will help keep Brady safe,” Rachel said.
The dog already has helped ease life for the Dunns after a trying year of change. In 2011, Dunn moved his family after joining the White Sox, underwent an emergency appendectomy and endured the worst season of his career.
“Things are more settled now,” Rachel said. “There were so many changes going on last year, but I think because things are better at home, Adam has really been able to take a deep breath. He worked really hard to get in shape in the offseason.”
Last season, Dunn batted .159 with 11 home runs and 42 RBI, often drawing boos from the home crowd. This season, he’s hitting .208 with 25 homers and 61 RBI, earning him a spot in the All-Star Game.
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For many, epilepsy, a neurological disorder that causes seizures, is controllable through medication. But for children, controlling it can be more challenging.
Brady takes medication, “but it’s tough because he’s a growing kid,” Rachel said. “An adult’s medication can be regulated more easily, but for a growing kid, the dosage is always changing.
“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have an extra security blanket to help us?’ We didn’t want to get a dog because of our lifestyle, but his seizures weren’t under real control, so we thought, ‘Anything we can do for some peace of mind.’ ”
The training involved for a medical-assistance dog can take two years. It’s a long process for the dog and the family.
Phoenix-based trainer Stacey Larsen, who has spent more than 17 years training dogs, has helped turn a rambunctious puppy into a well-mannered, attentive dog who is attuned to Brady.
But the long-range goal is to develop Astro into a dog who can alert people of an impending seizure.
“When I met Rachel, I realized she needed a dog that could be with her son and take care and watch and be a great source of comfort,” said Larsen, who has been training Astro for six months. “We’ve taught this dog to be with Brady, to stay with him, brace him if he falls, stay relaxed, give comfort. The seizure-sense detection will be Astro’s next step.”
“I just wanted him to have a dog like I had,” Dunn said of Brady. “That was my main thing. My son is no different than any other kid. He loves animals.”
Rachel was hoping for something more.
“The biggest reason we started looking into it was because a number of the seizures happen when he’s sleeping,” she said. “At our home in Texas, we have cameras in his room to monitor him, but here in Chicago, we keep him in bed with us.”
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The family’s neurologist encouraged the use of an assistance dog, but what the Dunns found in their research wasn’t encouraging.
Most organizations that train and place medical-assistance dogs require a period of training at their facilities.
“That just wouldn’t work with our lifestyle,” Rachel said.
Worse, most wouldn’t place a dog with a young child such as Brady.
Complicating things were Brady’s allergies, which also can trigger seizures.
“We had to go in another direction,” Rachel said.
They found an Alabama breeder of “golden doodles,” a mixed breed considered more hypoallergenic, but there still was the matter of training.
“We went back and forth on this, but Adam was the one who spearheaded it,” Rachel said. “I remember the week before we were going to pick up Astro, I almost thought it wasn’t going to happen. Adam said, ‘We have to make it happen.’ ”
A friend told them about Larsen. Her training facility in Scottsdale, Ariz., would be ideal while the Dunns were in spring training.
“She came into our lives at the right time,” Rachel said.
When spring training ended, Astro remained with Larsen to continue training. He rejoined the Dunns last month but will return to Larsen later for more training.
Astro and the Dunns still have months of training ahead, and Brady will be incorporated into it.
“But we’ve noticed already that Astro is drawn to Brady,” Rachel said. “He stays by him. He’s already a great protector.”
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To Brady and little brother Casey, Astro “is just their dog who gets to go with us everywhere, which they think is pretty cool,” Rachel said.
He is much more to their parents.
“I love that dog,” Dunn said. “He’s such a great dog. He’s been a lot of fun. And he stays right by Brady. It’s amazing.”
It might be coincidental, but Brady’s condition has been stable for some time, and Astro is settling in as a beloved member of the family.
Astro still has his “puppy moments,” but the Dunns stay focused on what the future can be with their special pet.
“There will be peace of mind,” Rachel said. “That’s why we’re sticking to this. It’s a long process, but there is so much hope for what this dog will do for our family and for Brady. We’re absolutely very optimistic.”