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The Promise of Dolphin-Assisted Therapy

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Whitehorse Star, September 19, 2003.

Animals have served humans well for thousands of years now. We are all familiar with guard dogs and dogs trained to sniff out explosives and drugs. We have heard about the role carrier pigeons played during the First World War, several of which were the recipients of medals.

In Iraq right now, there are a number of unusual animals performing dangerous tasks for their military masters: dolphins and sea lions are used to patrol for and remove underwater explosive devices that threaten shipping lanes and harbours. The sad part is that animals used in military and police services sometimes die while performing their duty.

Seeing-eye dogs are common, as are dogs helping people with other disabilities. The beauty is that these animals can perform their duties with little or no danger to themselves. They are priceless to their human companions.

A newer program offered in some penal institutions now trains inmates to train dogs for helping the disabled--a great way to have inmates do useful work and to ensure that more disabled people end up with a four-legged helper.

An animal that is a relative newcomer in terms of peaceful, not wartime, help to human beings is the dolphin. Apparently, the idea to utilize dolphins in therapy was first conceived by Dr. Ludmila Lukina, a Russian scientist who trained dolphins--formerly used by the Soviet military--to be the stars of a study called Dolphin Assisted Therapy.

In the study, there were more than a thousand patients, both adult and children, suffering from a variety of diseases. Often referred by their physicians whose normal treatments were not working, they were aided in their healing by dolphins. Patients suffering from specialized phobias, cerebral paralysis, and stammering showed remarkable improvement after interaction with dolphins.

Since these early but promising beginnings, dolphin-assisted therapy has made great strides. In Great Britain, Dr. Horace Dobbs has found that dolphin therapy works very well for patients suffering from anorexia nervosa and similar ailments. He also came up with the idea that the sonic communication utilized by dolphins could help alleviate depression, much like music can alter moods and be beneficial to human beings.

The Dolphin Research Centre (DRC) on Grassy Key, Fla., has been helping adults and children with dolphin therapy since 1988. In particular, they have been successful in conjunction with human therapists, of course, in helping patients expand speech, reduce stress, and focus attention on specific tasks. The success rate has also been phenomenal in the treatment of autism, Downs syndrome, visual impairment, cerebral palsy, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and cancer, to name a few. Indeed, the program has expanded so much that many program participants are sponsored by groups such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Sunshine Foundation, Children's Wish Foundation, Dream Foundation, the Easter Seal Society, and others around the globe.

What is most fascinating, though, is the way in which the dolphins interact with their human charges. One of the reasons for the way dolphins act seems to be their ability to use echolocation (biosonar) to zero in on the physical differences of their human swimming partners. For example, when one of the dolphins worked with a visually impaired youngster and time came for the dolphin's backrub, the animal stood upright in the water and gently rotated, offering all its surface to the hands of the child without being asked to do so. Another dolphin, blind in one eye herself, constantly clicked while swimming with a blind youngster, as if knowing that he needed audio input to know where she was at all times.

Another dolphin seemed to sense that a young woman, who was just regaining the use of her hands, had a hard time grasping its dorsal fin. When the young woman became frustrated, the dolphin (Nat) simply swam alongside her and pushed his dorsal fin into the crook of her elbow, taking her for a gentle ride. By the way, years later Nat's half-sister performed the same manoeuvre under similar circumstances, even though she had never witnessed Nat's elbow dorsal.

The dolphin's use of biosonar probably also accounts for the fact that they sense healed broken bones, implanted metal plates, injuries, and even pregnancies in their human companions.

It has been observed that the dolphins seem to pick up on special needs of their human swimming partners without prompting.

How do they do that? Can dolphins and humans communicate with each other without the use of language or even the hand signals dolphins are trained with? The evidence certainly seems to suggest that possibility.

The healing work that's being done with the dolphins is simply amazing. Yet, I think we have only just begun to realize how helpful and intelligent these gentle creatures can be.

I only hope that we continue to use that intelligence for the good of both species.