Destination: Dolphin Therapy


Vacationing With These Spectacular Animals Could Be Just What the Doctor Ordered

A young gures enjoys a dorsal pull with a little help from staff at the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, Florida

A young guest enjoys a dorsal pull with a little help from staff at the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, Florida

Take a look at the snow outside your window. Had enough of it? What would be better than thumbing your nose at Old Man Winter by escaping to a sun-soaked island? How about going there to swim with the dolphins? While dolphins have fascinated humans for ages (If you’ve ever been part of a packed audience at the Vancouver Aquarium’s shows, you’ve seen their fans), Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT), a relatively recent (and somewhat controversial) form of treatment, is showing us that these creatures could be more than just a pretty sight.

You don’t have to travel beyond the usual winter getaways to discover dolphins’ therapeutic benefits. There are holiday resorts in Florida, Hawaii, Curaçao and the Bahamas that feature swims with dorsal-finned playmates as part of the adventure.

So, just what is DAT? The therapy involves using a dolphin as a motivator. DAT is aimed at individuals—adults and children—with a variety of disabilities, including physical and developmental. While every program is different, in general, participants are trained on how to approach and communicate with dolphins, followed by interacting with the animals from a distance, and then in the water.

DAT programs are tailored to an individual’s needs. “When we have a blind person, we might make the sessions more auditory, more tactile,” says Joan Mehew, director of the Special Needs Department at Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, Florida. “Based on the individual’s needs, we might [choose a different] dolphin to use.”

Dr. Horace Dobbs, a pioneer underwater researcher from England, believes that DAT holds the biggest benefit for children with developmental delays or cognitive disabilities, including autism, Asperger’s syndrome and Down syndrome. It has also been used to treat psychological conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

DAT’s proponents believe that there are various benefits to sessions with dolphins. There is no doubt that the novelty of the experience itself can trigger positive reactions. And, according to Mehew, “There is often an improvement in fine motor skills. When [a child] uses a whistle, he’s using those muscles around his mouth. Or, he might use a hand that he doesn’t typically use because he wants to touch the dolphin. Mehew has also seen a few cases of non-verbal autistic children who have spoken their first words soon after sessions with dolphins.

Shona Chambers, a UK-based mom, whose 14-year-old son Michael has autism, backs up Mehew’s observations. “Michael was non-verbal when we first came [to Dolphin Research Centre],” she explains. “He would say maybe one word in six months. On our second or third visit, he said, ‘Mum. Dolphin. I want one.’ For him to say a few words together, in a sentence, was something of a miracle.” On the Chambers most recent visit, Michael started to learn and speak the names of the dolphins as well as the names of the trainers who work with them.

Florida-native Nikki Mansueto, whose two-and-a-half-year-old son, Dominic, is autistic, says she finds that he is making more eye contact and has been more attentive since his two-week-long sessions with dolphins in October.

Licensed social worker and psychotherapist Deena Hoagland, who is director of the non-profit organization Island Dolphin Care, in Key Largo, Florida, finds that DAT benefits not just the child with the disability, who is the intended recipient, but the whole family. “When you have a child who has a disability with able siblings, their lives are sometimes very different,” she explains. “The typical sibling is in sports or after-school activities, while the child with a disability is in therapy programs after school. There is no interaction between siblings.” And parents can feel drained from attending to the needs of the children. A holiday that includes a dolphin program might be the event that brings everyone together as a family.


Dolphins are just part of the draw at these stunning tropical destinations

Dolphins are just part of the draw at these stunning tropical destinations
Jackie Connell, from England, sponsors group trips for children with disabilities and their families (or caretakers) to Bimini Islands, Bahamas, through her Operation Sunshine program.
“It is good for families to be together on the trip with others like them,” she says. “They find out that they are not alone in what they are facing. People often make lifelong friends on our trips.”

Anecdotal evidence, like the reports from Chambers and Mansueto, feed into the idea that dolphins are highly social animals that can do double duty as therapists. But DAT is not without its detractors. Even within dolphin therapy circles, there are differing opinions about whether dolphins should be held captive at various therapy centers for the benefit of humans.

Dobbs likens swimming with dolphins to a spiritual experience. “These are highly intelligent animals with a lot to teach us,” he says. To him, holding dolphins captive is akin to holding people prisoner and throwing away the key. Dobbs strongly advocates swimming with dolphins only in open waters.

Detractors also point to the more nebulous claims associated with DAT. There have been no rigorous scientific studies proving the efficacy of the therapy. Most data is anecdotal or the sample sizes have been too small to prove DAT’s claims one way or another.

Dobbs believes that interacting with dolphins is not that different from owning pets. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, since there is evidence for the benefits of animal-assisted therapies, in general. Hoagland warns that people should not expect miracles from DAT. She says that the biggest advantage of the therapy is that the dolphins are trained to respond to a child’s signals, which might in turn trigger an “Aha!” moment for the child. “When a child is successful with dolphins, he might think, ‘I’ve done this, I can do more.’”

If you’re curious to find out more about DAT for yourself, you don’t have to travel too far from Canada to participate in a program. However, there are a few factors to consider before you take the all-important step of signing up. All of the programs require formal applications before a child or family can participate. The application packets are designed to provide a background on the family and weed out those with unrealistic goals. Island Dolphin Care asks for a video of the child with the disability to be submitted along with the application. “This helps us to see the child’s abilities and disability, and decide who is the best therapist, or the best dolphin,” says Hoagland.

Even though participants are not required to be able to swim, they should be comfortable wearing floatation devices and letting others hold them. Programs also require doctor’s notes for the intended participants. For example, if a person has a history of seizures, that might have to be addressed in the note. “We don’t want any surprises in the water,” says Mehew. In cases of significant disability, a trained caregiver should be in the water with the participant at all times.

All this said, booking a trip (see sidebar) and heading off to a warm destination to sip drinks infused with pineapple and coconut, see the sights, lounge in the sun (with high SPF, of course) and watch your family members grinning from ear to ear as they enjoy dolphin encounters may be worth the effort.


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