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Dolphin Therapy

Dolphin Therapy

Aquatic therapy has long understood that being in the water has a therapeutic effect on people with varying types of disabilities (McKinney, A; Wolf, R.; 2001). Being in the water allows people that are in wheelchairs, freedom in movement otherwise not experienced. To this benefit include dolphins. Dolphins have been cited as having special capabilities that enhance healing potential in people with disabilities (Johnson, L.; Bourne, R.).

What is Dolphin Therapy

When people need extra care, special animals are there to help! (Dogs, horse, monkeys, dolphins and others). Dolphin Therapy refers to a type of treatment for people with and without disabilities by using dolphin interaction as an attempt to rectify or lessen the disability.

Dolphin assisted therapy dates back to the 1950s and the work of Dr. John Lilly, who studied the effects of dolphins on individuals with disabilities (McKinney, A; Wolf, R.; 2001).

Some parents can be frustrated when seeking for a miracle for their children. This treatment combines two elements that have demonstrated great promise in therapy with children: interaction with an animal and immersion in warm water. Typically this treatment is combined with speech therapist, hydrotherapy, and massage.

Why Dolphins

Dolphins measure 8 to 10 feet in length; weigh an average of 400 pounds, swim up to 35 miles per hour. Dolphins are gentle in demeanor, graceful in the water, and appear friendly and communicative (McKinney, A; Wolf, R.; 2001) and have the capability to heal through presence and interactions.

They are more attractive to humans and seem to know the primary causes of the patientís problem. The only species that compares with Homo sapiens in intelligence. Dolphins possess an innate gentleness and a mysterious power to trigger the healing process in humans (Bhattacharya, A.).

The unconditional love and support a dolphin has to offer can benefit children including mentally ill patients in many ways.  A dolphin seems to have human like emotions, so a deep trusting bond can develop between patient and mammal.  Some proponents of dolphin assisted therapy claim that the compassion a dolphin displays increases the patientís self- confidence, because the patient is never judged.

How the Therapy Works

Some therapist believe that because dolphins seem to enjoy spontaneous nonverbal play and have a reputation for being both gentile and attentive, that these animals may be able to help them each and motivate otherwise unresponsive people. (Livermore, B; 1991)

Theories range from a belief that individual experience stimulation of the immune system when interacting with dolphin, thus promoting healing; to a belief that the individuals receive such joy and unconditional love from dolphins that they are more apt to experience recovery.

One of the most popular theories is that the dolphinís use of sonar and echolocation produces changes in a personís body tissue and cell structure. Similar to the effect of music therapy, some researchers have suggested that the sounds dolphins emit thought their whistles and clicks help produce these change.

Echolocation is claimed to affect brain wave pattern & human tissue. Echolocation is a technique on which Dolphins frequently rely to navigate, locate food and communicate with other dolphins. Is a technique that the dolphins use to produce sounds (Soothing noises) (McKinney, A; Wolf, R.; 2001). It is claimed Echolocation affects the brain wave pattern & human tissue. It is also thought to help increase attention span, develop motor skills, and develop better coordination in children.

Some say that the dolphinís use of sonar and echolocation produce changes in the body tissue and cell structure of patients who associate with them. The sound waves emitted by the dolphins in communication and echolocation stimulate healing.

Results obtained to date reveal that after swimming with dolphins in situations where subjects can hear dolphin acoustic emissions; there is an increase in left- right hemispheric synchronization and an increase in slow (alpha/theta) brainwave activity.

Researchers attribute the diminishing of anxiety and depression, enhanced learning in handicapped children and pain relief to dolphin echolocation.

Who can Benefit from Dolphin Therapy?

Children and Adults with the following conditions may receive benefits from this type of treatment:

  • Autism
  • Rett Syndrome
  • Mental Retardation
  • Spinal Cord Injury
  • Visual impair
  • Cerebral palsy
  • ADHD
  • Cancer
  • Mentally, emotionally, and physically impaired children
  • Post traumatic stress disorder
  • Speech and cognitive difficulties
  • Multiple forms of emotional problems
  • Down Syndrome

What are the benefits of Dolphin therapy

Dolphins communicate with sounds and a tremendous variety of body language. Dolphins are excellent at reading the body language of people. (Smith, 1978). Autistic children were among the first to participate in swimming with dolphin therapy. The exposure to dolphins is considered a novel stimulation, which can assist in the development of desired behaviors.

There is no hard scientific evidence that dolphins are more effective than any other therapy (Livermore, B; 1991), but some research indicates that students with MR that play with Dolphin learn two to ten times faster increasing their learning rate (Nathanson, D.; 1987).

Others benefits from Dolphin Therapy are:

  • Increase of attention span in autistic children
  • Stop self-injury behavior in children, dolphin therapy as a reinforcement.
  • More social interaction
  • Dolphin human therapy can be four to five more effective than conventional treatment (Nathanson)
  • Helps children relax, which enables them to learn (Nathanson, D.; 1993)
  • Decrease anxiety
  • Helps with concentration
  • It is claimed that it helps the immune system.
  • Seem to develop greater self-confidence and improve social skills.
  • Increases speech and motor skills in children and adults

Researchers have found that Dolphin Therapy alleviates depression, boosting production of infection fighting T-cells, stimulating production of endorphins and hormones, enhancing recovery, and reducing pain. These results are based on examination of brain wave patterns, psychological testing, blood chemistry, health of the immune system, the state of the brain, and cell make up. (McKinney, A, et al.; 2001)

Where are some place to swim with dolphin

Dolphin swimming centered programs may seek to improve the quality of life for individuals, and their families, suffering from the effects of different disorders. Doctors at dolphin centers claim they have helped more than 1,000 children overcome learning disorders, and say that represents a 97 percent success rate.

There is a proliferation of swim with dolphin programs with absence of regulation. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency that oversees the capture and maintain ace of dolphins, indicates the safety issues are rising. Their biggest concerns are disease transmission between dolphins and humans, increased stress on the animals, and risk to injury to humans. (Livermore, B; 1991) A barrier of these programs is that they are hosted by the same facilities that run profit-making swim with dolphin programs for the general public (Livermore, B; 1991).

Some therapist are proposing that all professionals putting clients into the water with dolphins take water safety training, be certified in adaptive aquatics, have some knowledge of dolphin behavior, and never force an animal to interact with their clients.

These programs provide a unique educational experience that often allows children to become more expressive and develop closer bonds with parents, doctors, and therapists upon returning home.

Prices vary from center to center depending on the length of stay. The most common areas for visit a Dolphin clinic center are: 

  • Florida keys
  • Hawaii
  • Venezuela
  • Curacao
  • Australia
  • Mexico
  • Bahamas

Internet Links


Blow, R(1995). Why does swimming with dolphins help humans heal? Retrieved on June 21, 2004 from

Dolphin Assisted Therapy. Retrieved from

Dolphin therapy, NCAHF Newsletter (1984), Jan/Feb97, Vol. 20 (1)

Farley, T.P. (2000). Dreaming of Dolphins. World of Hibernia; Summer2000, Vol.6 #1, p.88

Halls, K. (1996). Dolphin Therapy- Making Splash. U+S+ Kids; Jun Vol.9 (4), p2

Johnston, L.; bourne, R. Is There a Dolphin in the House? Retrieve from on  Jun 21, 2004

Livermore, B. (1991). Water Wings. Sea Frontiers; Mar/Apr91, Vol. 37 (2), p.44

McKenney, A.; Wolff, R. (2001) The Promises of Dolphin-Assisted Therapy. Department of Physical Education and Recreation, Florida International University, Miami, Florida

Richard, J. (1993). The Dolphin Treatment (use of Dolphin to help handicapped children). People Weekly Magazine; Oct 25, 1993 Vol. 40 (17) p.175(3)

Sorge, L. (2000). Swimming with Dolphins. We Magazine; Jan/Feb, Vol. 4 (1) p.104

Wolgroch, D. Dolphin Assisted Therapy. Retrieve on June 21, 2004 from:

This content was created by Luis Columna,
Doctoral Student Adapted Physical Education
Texas Womanís University

page last updated 1/3/2017 1:00 PM