Dolphin Assisted Therapy
Lori Marino, PhD
Whale Sanctuary Project & the Department of Animal Studies, New York University
David Celiberti, PhD, BCBA-D
Association for Science in Autism Treatment
Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT) is a form of animal‐assisted therapy (AAT) in which children or adults with various conditions interact with or swim with live captive dolphins. DAT is advertised as therapy for a wide range of physical and psychological conditions (e.g., depression, intellectual disabilities, musculoskeletal problems, epilepsy) but is focused mostly on individuals on the autism spectrum (Marino & Lilienfeld, 2021). The length and frequency of sessions vary across facilities but typically involve several sessions over a week to a month. In a typical DAT session, the client is engaged in traditional verbal, motor, or attentional tasks in the presence of a dolphin. Such tasks might include responding to simple directions, answering simple questions, or asking the individual to approach the dolphin. The involvement with the dolphin ranges from simply sitting poolside and observing the dolphin, to touching or feeding the dolphin, to entering the water and swimming with or being pulled around by the dolphin. The dolphin is often used as a reinforcer whereas the client would be given the opportunity to pet/feed/swim with the dolphin if he/she completes the desired task.
DAT began in the 1970s when educational anthropologist Betsy Smith noticed that her intellectually disabled brother enjoyed interacting with captive dolphins. However, after years of offering DAT in Florida, she denounced it for its lack of supportive evidence as a long-term therapy. Through the years, proponents of DAT have advanced a variety of theories about why DAT might be therapeutic. These include proposing that dolphin sonar (also called echolocation) has healing properties, that dolphins have a special relationship with people, and that dolphin interaction increased motivation to perform well on a task (Marino & Lilienfeld, 2021, for a review)
Several general reviews have noted the lack of substantive support for the claims made by the DAT industry as well as the implausibility of the proposed theories about why it might be effective (Burton, 2013; Herzog, 2014; May et al., 2016; Serpell et al., 2017). Over the past few decades, numerous papers purporting to show the effectiveness of DAT for autism and other conditions have been published in peer-reviewed journals. However, a closer examination of these studies reveals significant weaknesses in the way they were carried out. These studies often examine different outcome measures before and after interaction with a dolphin, but they often do not consider other factors that may be a better explanation for results than swimming with a dolphin (e.g., Diltz et al., 2011; Griffioen et al., 2019; MdYusof & Chia, 2012). That is, they do not carefully control for all possible explanations. Additionally, they may rely upon self-report or the reporting of parents as evidence of improvement, but these are often not valid, as they may be due to client expectations of improvement rather than actual improvement (e.g., Diltz et al., 2011; MdYusof & Chia, 2012).
Finally, there is no evidence that any positive effects of DAT on mood or energy level are sustained in the long term. In summary, careful peer-reviewed published analyses of DAT’s effectiveness yield no compelling evidence for the validity of DAT as an effective treatment for those on the autism spectrum or with other conditions (Marino and Lilienfeld, 1998, 2007, 2021).
Due to a lack of adequate scientific evidence, DAT is not recommended as a treatment for autism spectrum disorders. Seemingly powerful motivators and effective therapies are different experiences altogether yet are often conflated. We do not dispute the possibility that some individuals may enjoy the experience of swimming with dolphins; however, that connection, even if strong, between a child with autism and a dolphin, is fleeting. The seemingly rewarding experiences of interacting with dolphins can be provided through more accessible opportunities that do not involve costly interactions with animals in remote locations.
It is important to note that DAT is conducted by individuals at the aquariums/dolphin parks, which are not regulated by any official body, nor are these providers credentialed or licensed. Taken together, DAT appears implausible as an intervention with enduring outcomes and poses risk for all participants, including the dolphins.
There are some important lessons that can be learned from DAT that have important implications for how families may select experiences. First, both providers and consumers need to be very careful and selective about which experiences we attach to the word “therapy.” Misuse of this term can be misleading, can raise false hope, can sap family resources, and can separate children from other treatments with a documented track record of success. Second, it is important for professionals to recognize that families of individuals with autism, like all families, desire vacation experiences that engender excitement, family togetherness, and enthusiasm, and providers should make themselves available to offer input when asked. Third, providers, whose interventions typically include skill-building, can target skills that lead to future success associated with a family’s planned vacation experiences (e.g., checking in at the airport, waiting for a turn on a ride), as well as more other excursions of interest to a particular family (e.g., ordering in a restaurant, learning how to rollerblade).
Finally, it may be helpful to clarify for families that there are any number of other activities that may be fun for the individual and/or for the family, but do not offer therapeutic effects beyond the enjoyment of the activity. These activities may be pursued, but the expectations for them should align with these limitations. It is our hope that these important considerations and caveats will be discussed in a frequent, transparent, and compassionate manner, led by providers that have compassionate relationships with individuals with autism and their families.
Selected Scientific Studies:
Dilts, R., Trompisch, N., & Bergquist, T. M. (2011). Dolphin-assisted therapy for children with special needs: A pilot study. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 6(1), 56–68.
Griffioen, R., van der Steen, S., Cox, R. F. A., Verheggen, T., & Enders-Slegers, M. J. (2019). Verbal interactional synchronization between therapist and children with autism spectrum disorder during dolphin assisted therapy: Five case studies. Animals, 9, 716.
MdYusof, M. S. B., & Chia, N. K. H. (2012). Dolphin encounter for special children (DESC) program: Effectiveness of dolphin‐assisted therapy for children with autism. International Journal of Special Education, 27(3), 54–67.
Systematic Reviews of Scientific Studies:
Burton, A. (2013). Dolphins, dogs, and robot seals for the treatment of neurological disease. The Lancet Neurology, 12(9), 851-852.
Herzog, H. (2014). Does animal-assisted therapy really work. What Clinical Trials Reveal about the Effectiveness of Four-Legged Therapists). Available online: https://www. Psychologytoday.com/blog/animals-and-us/201411/does-animal-assisted-therapy-really-work (accessed on 26 February 2017).
Marino, L., & Lilienfeld, S. (1998). Dolphin‐assisted therapy: Flawed data, flawed conclusions. Anthrozoos, 11(4), 194–199.
Marino, L., & Lilienfeld, S. (2007). Dolphin assisted therapy: More flawed data, more flawed conclusions. Anthrozoos, 20, 239–249.
Marino, L., & Lilienfeld, S. O. (2021). Third time’s the charm or three strikes you’re out? An updated review of the efficacy of dolphin‐assisted therapy for autism and developmental disabilities. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 77(6), 1265-1279. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.23110
May, D. K., Seivert, N. P., Cano, A., Casey, R. J., & Johnson, A. (2016). Animal-assisted therapy for youth. A systematic methodological critique. Human Animal Interaction Bulletin, 4(1), 1-18.
Serpell, J., McCune, S., Gee, N., & Griffin, J. A. (2017). Current challenges to research on animal-assisted interventions, Applied Developmental Science, 21(3), 223-233.
Please note that recent task force reports did not reference Dolphin Assisted Therapy (Hume et al., 2021; Whitehouse et al., 2020).
Hume, K., Steinbrenner, J. R., Odom, S. L., Morin, K. L., Nowell, S. W., Tomaszewski, B., Szendrey, S., McIntyre, N. S., Yücesoy-Özkan, S., & Savage, M. N. (2021). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with autism: Third generation review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-020-04844-2
Whitehouse, A., Varcin, K., Waddington, H., Sulek, R., Bent, C., Ashburner, J., Eapen, V., Goodall, E., Hudry, K., Roberts, J., Silove, N., & Trembath, D. (2020). Interventions for children on the autism spectrum: A synthesis of research evidence. Autism CRC, Brisbane.
Citation for this article:
Marino, L., & Celiberti, D. (2023). A treatment summary of Dolphin Assisted Therapy. Science in Autism Treatment, 20(4).
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