Matthew Von Dollen, 19 of Blauvelt, was walking with his dog, Merlin, when he had a seizure and collapsed in the middle of the road. Merlin immediately formed a bridge over Von Dollen keeping him safe until help arrived.
Merlin is Von Dollen’s canine assistant. With 4-5 seizures per day, Von Dollen was used to very little independence because of his epilepsy, but he’s gained some when he was paired with Merlin in November 2011.
Everyday Health co-hosts Ethan Zohn, Jenna Morasca and Laila Ali made a special trip to Blauvelt to revisit with Von Dollen as part of their “Where are They Now?” episode from their “Everyday Health Hero” segment. On Saturday, April 28, you can watch the story behind these two on ABC stations across the country, and locally on WABC at noon.
Von Dollen was diagnosed with epilepsy at 3 months old and after years of struggling with this condition, he received his service dog, Merlin, to assist him back in November from Canine Assistants. The golden retriever turns 2-years-old in June.
When the show first met Von Dollen, he was unable to go anywhere by himself due to epilepsy. Zohn and Morasca helped him earlier this year by introducing him to Canine Assistants.
Merlin senses when Von Dollen’s seizures are approaching and he runs to Von Dollen and licks his hand within 20 minutes of a seizure occurring.
Watch a sneak peek of the episode on Everyday Health.
“Matthew has seizures everyday, 4-5 per day. He has seizures for no reason. His seizures can be from mild to very severe,” said Kathy, Von Dollen’s mother.
She added that since Matthew is a typical looking teenager, it’s sometimes difficult to identify that he
Matthew is a typical looking teenager so when he has a seizure, it’s not always easy for the public to detect that something may be wrong.
However, with Merlin’s vest, “you would know that he needs help. As time goes on he’ll become more and more independent though.”
“Because Matthew’s seizures aren’t controlled, it’s hard for him to have a lot of independence. He will go for a walk with Merlin now.”
Canine Assistants is a non-profit organization which trains and provides service dogs for children and adults with physical disabilities or other special needs, according to its website. Jennifer Arnold is the founder and executive director.
“I did research on it and when I saw Jennifer Arnold speak, I decided that’s the way I’m going,” said Kathy. “That’s such a wonderful program. Everyone we met was just above and beyond. It was a wonderful experience.”
They went to Canine Assistants in Atlanta back in November 2011. They were there for only a week and there were other people there as well looking for service dogs. Those other people, Kathy said, already had service dogs in the past but their service dogs had passed away.
“You think you’re going down there to pick a dog but the dog picks you. You can’t train a dog to pick up on seizures. It either happens or it doesn’t. (Von Dollen’s connection with Merlin) was immediate. It was an amazing thing to see happen,” said Kathy. “He just came out, saw Matthew and never took his eyes off him.”
The Von Dollens’ aftercare representative from Canine Assistants, Megan, is a phone call away if there are any issues or problems with Merlin. Fortunately, there hasn’t been any since they returned with him five months ago.
“They beautifully train dogs. I knew I was going to like the dog but we’re over the top about this dog. They wanted to make sure we were comfortable with him.”
When Merlin first came home, he went through training where was on a leash and formed a strong bond with Von Dollen. The program Von Dollen goes to is Franklin Square in Pearl River.
“They fully introduced the dog to the program. Franklin square did such a great job. We went by ourselves when the building was empty and walked around with Merlin. The rule is that no one pets Merlin during the day while he’s there,” said Kathy. “They (Franklin Square) were great and receptive to it. Megan helped with Merlin’s transition to Franklin Square.”
“It’s only been five months and it’s a learning process for us,” said Kathy. “Nighttime, that always frightens me because I can’t be there for him when he’s sleeping. Merlin has come in 6-7 times at night to wake me to check on Matthew. He’ll (gently) bite my arm to wake me.”
She added that they don’t keep Merlin in a crate so he can get to the rest of the family 24/7 if he needs to.
“Merlin gets very upset when people come near Matthew when he has a seizure. He’s very protective of Matthew,” said Kathy. “He had a seizure on the street and Merlin made a bridge over Matthew in case a car came.”
Merlin’s transition into the family has been smooth. Kathy has three other children and her oldest child pitches in with giving Merlin baths and feeding him. Her two younger ones mostly just play with Merlin.
“I’m surprised how crazy I am about him. I don’t find him as a lot of work. He’s the nicest dog. He’s gentle and very kind,” said Kathy.