Dolphin Assisted Therapy: Scientific or Only a Gimmick?


     The practice of dolphin assisted therapy is not very common, but many captivity supporters use it to argue that dolphins should be kept in tanks.

     Dolphin assisted therapy is said to be a form of animal therapy, but because dolphins possess such powerful and mysterious sonar, it is at times marketed as ultrasound therapy. When DAT began in the 1970’s, it was believed that the dolphin sonar would repair the body and mind, triggering a healing process in disabled individuals. Unfortunately, there is no scientific

Disabled individuals interact with dolphins in a captive DAT session.

evidence to support this claim. Today most DAT facilities market their program as one that promotes therapeutic joy, hope, inspiration and relaxation that is unmatched.

     Most often, dolphin assisted therapy is paired with other practices like expressive arts, aquatic therapy, massage, and similar techniques that are thought to improve the conditions of those with disabilities. In most cases, these individuals are placed in a tank where they interact with dolphins by touching them, and watching the dolphin do tricks. Families pay thousands of dollars for a few interactions with these captive dolphins.

     The results of DAT are highly polarized. There have been several instances of improvement after DAT recorded scientifically, which cannot be denied. Although many people believe that positive outcomes are caused by the programs’ combination with hydro therapy – or an aquatic environment, rather than the presence of the dolphins. Those with this viewpoint often describe DAT as a gimmick, that is offered solely for the money.

   Others believe that any positive progression is a product of the socialization, and movement with the dolphins, as well as the sense of relaxation or happiness that may be triggered by the encounter. It is believed that the presence of a non-human, intelligent, sentient being may be an uplifting experience for special children. 

A dolphin approaches a special child in a wild, dolphin-initiated DAT experience.

     Some programs offer interactions with wild dolphins, which is more ethical than the captive alternative. In captivity the dolphins are in close proximity with the children and are  oftentimes forced to interact. In the wild, the dolphins usually keep a safe distance from the swimmers. Because DAT programs are loosely regulated, there have been occurences of hits, chases, ramming, forceful pushing and biting. 1 Many aggressive instances end in broken bones or severe injuries from DAT contact with captive animals. 2

     If the encounter is wild dolphin-initiated, it is much safer and much more ethical than opportunities featuring captives. No matter where the encounter occurs, the positive effects are not necessarily dolphin-specific. Many other animal therapy programs, or even hydro therapy programs offer the same, or similar results. Because of this, dolphins should not be kept captive for the purpose of DAT.

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