In a scientific paper for the journal the Archives of Disease in Childhood, paediatricians Anna Baverstock and Fiona Finlay of the Community Child Health Department in Bath have concluded that there is no reliable evidence that it actually works. If anything, they say, it may even prevent patients from seeking more effective and traditional forms of treatment.
Some tend to think that Dolphin-assisted therapy (DAT) could prove effective in the case of children with disabilities. The therapy typically occurs in marine parks and dolphinariums 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 (e.g., a speech, occupational, or physical therapist depending on the child's disability) where interactions with dolphins follow a child's correct cognitive, physical, or social-emotional response.
Large numbers of these programs operate in countries throughout the world, including Mexico, the United States, Israel, and Russia. Proponents claim that DAT can effectively improve language, behavior, cognitive processing, attention, motivation to learn, and certain medical conditions. Dolphin-assisted therapy programs have received highly favorable notice from the media, including television news programs, adding to its popularity.
British scientists Baverstock and Finlay conducted the review because a mother was seeking medical support for her son and they needed to determine whether swimming with dolphins had any health benefits for children with cerebral palsy. They found that at best, it had the same likelihood of success - and failure - as having the patient interact with a small puppy.
The news will come as a blow to the multi-million pound dolphin-assisted therapy industry, which insists that playing with the intelligent marine mammals can help people suffering from a wide variety of conditions.
Various enterprises operate in resorts the world over promoting trips to swim with dolphins in the wild. Other schemes involve swimming with dolphins in tanks.
Previous studies have backed the use of swimming with dolphin to help people's recovery.
In 2005, a University of Leicester team tested the effect of regular swimming sessions with dolphins on 15 depressed people in a study carried out in Honduras and published in the British Medical Journal.
The team found that symptoms improved more among this group than among another 15 who swam in the same area but did not interact with dolphins.
The idea that human interaction with dolphins may be beneficial was first formulated in the 1960s by John Lilly, who studied dolphin-human communication and suggested that dolphins could help humans learn to communicate better with one another.
Lilly's ideas were extended into the 1970s when dolphin researchers began examining the effects that interacting with dolphins appeared to have on children with neurological impairments. However, most of the empirical research on the effectiveness of dolphin-assisted therapy has been conducted in the last decade and has been carried out primarily by those who operate dolphin-assisted therapy programs and other "dolphin-swim" programs.
In a 2003 study funded by the U. S. Department of Education, Tracy L. Humphries said, "...claims of the effectiveness of using dolphins as a procedure for improving the behaviors of young children with disabilities are therefore not supported by available research evidence."