Where did Dolphin Assisted Therapy Get Its Start
25 Jan

Where did Dolphin Assisted Therapy Get Its Start


Many people come back from their Hawaiian vacations excitedly telling a story of how they swam with dolphins, mentioning how relaxing and amazing it was. However, swimming with dolphins can be more than just a great anecdote from a fun trip. This type of therapy is typically utilized on patients who suffer from Down syndrome, autism, anxiety disorders, and even addictions.

Dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT) was introduced in the 1960s by John Lilly, a dolphin-human communication expert. In the 1970s, dolphin researchers observed children with neurological impairments interacting with dolphins, which confirmed Lilly’s hypothesis. Dr. David Nathanson was the first to put dolphin assisted therapy into effect. Dr. Nathanson started his experiment with two subject, both young males who suffered from Down syndrome (BioExpedition). He hoped to use this type of therapy to modify the behavior of these young men, as both were attention deficit.

He found that the dolphins did, in fact, increase the subjects’ attention. The two were allowed to feed the dolphins treats if they answered the experimenter’s questions correctly. Given the possibility of positive reinforcement, the subjects did as they were asked. They were able to process and retain verbal information. Compared to the learning practices that were in use at this time, the  subjects learned the verbal commands four times faster than they would have in a traditional setting. (Nathanson 1980).

For those with cognitive delays, swimming with dolphins, also called dolphin assisted therapy can work wonders on their cognitive, physical, and psychological development. When two weeks of DAT was compared to six months of conventional therapy, it was found that DAT was less expensive and far more effective. (cite anthrozoos)

However, DAT should only be used when all ethical practices are followed. There have been cases where the unwillingly domesticated dolphin bites the child it is supposed to be helping.

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