Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) involves incorporating an animal into a person’s therapeutic process or treatment. Dolphins are an increasingly popular choice of ATT to address psychological problems and developmental disabilities, especially in children. A growing and controversial group of global entrepreneurs claim dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT) can help patients feel better by putting them in close contact with dolphins. There are now more than 100 organizations offering DAT around the globe in such widely scattered places as Florida, Hawaii, Mexico, Israel, Australia, and Ukraine.

Although dolphin therapy is not regulated by any US government authority overseeing health and safety standards for either humans or dolphins, the practice is booming, fueled in part by the rapid growth in diagnoses of childhood mental disorders such as autism and other developmental disabilities. Desperate parents in search of cures have flown to facilities when all else has failed. Prices can run as high as $2600 for five 40-minute sessions.

The basic idea is to expose a patient to these charismatic creatures either in tanks, lagoons, or the open ocean. But the therapy typically occurs in marine parks and dolphin aquariums as part of programs that allow people to swim with dolphins. Children receiving DAT go through focused one-on-one sessions of individualized activities with a therapist, for example, a speech, occupational, or physical therapist, depending on a child’s disability. Interactions with dolphins then follow to reinforce the child’s corrected cognitive, physical, or social-emotional response. Reports in some studies found that children with disabilities learned faster and retained information longer when they were with dolphins compared to children who learned in a traditional classroom setting.

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The practice is highly controversial; it’s criticized by researchers and marine mammal conservationists, yet many parents swear by its effectiveness. Proponents claim that swimming with dolphins, petting and kissing them, and hearing their clicking calls produces benefits, or at the very least, they believe close contact with dolphins can jump-start a patient’s receptiveness to more conventional therapy. Some dolphin advocates attribute therapeutic value to a dolphin’s sonar, which dolphins use to scan the water around them. One woman whose daughter had a diagnosis of autism and pervasive developmental delay claims that her daughter said her first word as a result of DAT.

The Autism Society Web site lists DAT as one of several treatment approaches that can help by increasing communication skills, developing social interaction, and providing a sense of accomplishment. The site notes research of a retired International University psychologist, David Nathanson, who published his findings from working with children with disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism, and brain damage. Nathanson concluded that 2 weeks of dolphin-human therapy could achieve significantly greater improvement and more cost-effective treatment results than 6 months of conventional physical or speech therapy.

Conversely, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society has urged that the therapy be abandoned, citing reports of serious injuries to people who swim with dolphins, including bites and broken ribs, and the potential for disease transmission and stress for captive dolphins that are obliged to interact with a continuous stream of strangers and may be scratched by fingernails and jewelry. Other critics charge DAT is no more effective and much more expensive than skillful conventional treatment, while potentially harmful to the humans and the animals.

As concerns grow about the mistreatment of dolphins captured for therapy, some entrepreneurs provide DAT substitutes. For example, a Southern California company called Virtual Dolphin Therapy offers clients the experience of lying on water-filled mattresses and watching images of swimming dolphins on an overhead screen. Nathanson is experimenting with a dolphin-like robot. In research published in 2007, he concluded that interaction with the dolphin robot provided the same or more therapeutic benefits as interaction with an actual dolphin, without the environmental, administrative, legal, and ethical concerns, and the practical limitations, including the high costs associated with DAT.

Dolphins have fascinated humans since ancient times with their extraordinary grace and intelligence and that ever-present smile—and will probably always continue to do so!


  1. Animal-assisted therapy. Wikipedia.
  2. Dolphin. Wikipedia.
  3. Dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT). The Skeptic’s Dictionary Web site.
  4. Ellison K. Dolphin therapy is booming despite concerns about efficacy and animal cruelty. Washington Post Web site. February 23, 2010.