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Dolphin Assisted Therapy

by David Wolgroch(more info)

listed in animals, originally published in issue 38 - March 1999

Between 1992 and 1995 I served as the Psychological Consultant to the Dolphin Reef in Eilat, Israel. The facility is located in a natural lagoon on the Red Sea Coast. It contained six (and later eight) Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins which served as the main attraction to the leisure complex offering a swimming beach, beachside pub and club, diving school and educational activities about Dolphins and the Coral Reef. The Dolphin Reef is neither a treatment facility nor a research institution. It functions mainly as a popular tourist attraction.

Solo swimming with Dolphin © Photo by Tony Malmqvist

Solo swimming with Dolphin © Photo by Tony Malmqvist

The staff were inundated with requests for supervised Dolphin experiences as therapy for a variety of disorders. Among the conditions treated were Autism, Post Traumatic Stress Reactions, Cancer, Speech and Cognitive difficulties and a variety of emotional problems. Most of the cases were accepted on a voluntary basis and without any consideration for diagnosis, planning or liaison with other professionals.

Introduction of a swimmer to one of the dolphin pod © Photo by Tony Malmqvist

Introduction of a swimmer to one of the dolphin pod © Photo by Tony Malmqvist

When a group of five very pregnant women arrived from the UK escorted by their obstetrician, the Ministry of Health became apprehensive. This group of expectant mothers had already undergone a unique and intensive programme whose final goal was to give birth within the Dolphin Pool. They had engaged in regular swims at the reef followed by vivid testimonials of Dolphin energy being beamed towards their developing aspirations in the form of ultrasonic waves. The emission of coded clicks, high frequency shrills and intimate contact with the Dolphin Pod seemed to reassure them that their baby would be unique beyond their wildest fantasies.

However, before any of the group could summon their most potent labour contractions, the Ministry of Health hastily issued an edict preventing the introduction of pregnant women into the lagoon. Moreover, the facility was strongly encouraged to seek supervision by certified professionals before any further therapy could be implemented. This led to my appointment as Psychological Consultant to the Dolphin Reef Therapy Center.

Flying Dolphins

My first intervention followed the dramatic arrival of a fifteen-year-old severely disturbed girl at the reef. Tracey was found one early morning by the staff lying on the beach, unclothed and covered with blood from cuts on her feet due to the sharp coral reef. She claimed to have received telepathic messages from her alien cousins, the Dolphins.

It turned out that Tracey had escaped from a psychiatric ward for severely disturbed adolescents. She had pleaded for shelter from the incessant 'maltreatment' of the medical staff who had reportedly coerced her into complying with a painful regime of injections and being restrained in bed via leather straps. Of late, she had been claiming to see a Dolphin flying over her head in a manner in which one might expect alien spaceships to depart and land on the Earth's surface. The reef's staff had tried to remain attentive and supportive of Tracey's hallucinatory world without really comprehending it. I was consulted.

The description of disturbed functioning had led me to expect the dishevelled appearance characteristic of chronically ill mental patients unable to formulate an approach to personal hygiene. I was, however, relieved to see an attractive, tanned, longhaired adolescent girl looking somewhat more mature than her age. She did not appear overly agitated except for the understandable apprehension and resentment of again being assessed by a shrink. Her long well kempt hair indicated a level of functioning above what had been expected. Tracey wore a fashionable swimsuit with some youthful embarrassment. Her wrists were weighted with several metal rings, as was fashionable; perhaps to conceal scars from previous acts of desperation.

Tracey remained evasive and noncommittal about her complex past. She freely shared with me, however, her claim to actually see a Dolphin hovering over her head within the examination room. Naively, Tracey was not aware of the unlikelihood of this happening in reality. She was also unaware that visual hallucinations like these would indicate an unspecified organic brain lesion or worse. A more plausible explanation was that Tracey was being manipulative, hysterical or extremely anxious.

Instinctively, I reminded Tracey that she was not in a therapeutic facility accustomed to such bizarreness but in a leisure complex meant to enhance natural enjoyment of the surroundings. I would have to consider the appropriateness of her continued presence at the reef if her behaviour did not change.

I had agreed with the staff to provide a structured approach to Tracey. She would be offered regular and scheduled interactions with the Dolphins in a gradated manner. Depending on her level of functioning, Tracey would progress from participation in the feeding/training sessions to eventual free swims with the Dolphin Pod. In between sessions, Tracey would be encouraged to help out at the reef by cleaning the staff quarters, preparing herring for feed and answering the phone.

Most importantly the staff had agreed to avoid encouragement of bizarre expressions by not reacting to their enticing nature while engaging Tracey in more appropriate conversations (like boys, fashion, conservation and music).

Tracey was fully co-operative. She immediately seemed to grasp the intent of this approach. Dolphin flights were grounded forever, as was nude dancing on the beach in view of the astonished spectators. Val, a Dolphin trainer, had volunteered to be Tracey's guide. It was a good choice in view of Val's youthful disposition and practical 'down to earth' approach to matters. She had an enviable ability to be maternal yet friendly towards others. Val would serve as a positive role model to Tracey who was unlikely to have experienced 'normal' relationships in her difficult past.

At first, Tracey kept to herself apart from routinely accompanying Val on the training/feeding sessions five times per day. Her inclusion on the float in the Dolphin pool seemed almost natural to the spectators. Tracey appeared as a young staff member in training. As Val gradually began including her as an active participant in the training, a relationship with 'Dickey' (a male subdominant Dolphin) began to develop.

Tracey enthusiastically prepared for every session. She grasped the technique and rationale of training Dolphins in a caring, patient and natural manner. Dickey was especially obedient to her commands in contrast to his rebellious shenanigans with other trainers. The two teenagers, one Human and the other Cetacean had discovered a common bond of friendship.

After several weeks, Tracey managed to establish a constructive presence at the reef without undue bizzarreness. She was allowed daily swims with the Dolphin Pod. Dickey and Tracey engaged in an intimate and coyful interplay in the water. They seemed to be in a world of their own to the exclusion of the older generations of Dolphin and Staff who were left to provide space for their existence. It appeared that Tracey had adopted the reef as her surrogate family. She was home, at last.

A Silent World

When Dr D. Mair had contacted us with the idea of using Dolphins in the treatment of Autism I was overjoyed yet pessimistic. Could the Dolphin's persistent search for contact provide an avenue for breaking the impenetrable defence of these alienated souls? Was this simply the newest desperate addition to a long list of approaches in the treatment of Autism? It was a novel idea and worth a try.

The residential facility, which Dr Mair directed, provided monthly transportation for staff and eight of their adolescent residents with swimming ability. At the reef, some of the residents chose to remain under close supervision in the general swimming area where a swimming instructor endeavoured to patiently guide them into learning how to enjoy the water. One child remained fearful of immersion in the overwhelmingly expansive sea. She therefore was chosen to receive specialised attention on the platform float in the Dolphin pool. The others entered the Dolphin pool regularly with staff from the facility.

The eight-year-old on the platform was encouraged by Val to partake in the feeding sessions. She remained largely co-operative as long as she remained dry. Unintentional splashing of water resulted in vigorous screams of fright. The Dolphin's movements around the platform were followed with curious yet apprehensive attentiveness. Staff had already remarked on the relatively long attention span and interest in an object. Eventually, she was able to feed the Dolphin by anxiously tossing a piece of herring held by the tips of two fingers into the Dolphin's mouth. Val quietly signalled the Dolphin to emit a sound when the astonished girl exhibited an appropriate behaviour. She reacted to this with exhilarated shrills of vindication.

Reward, attention and guidance were similarly crafted into patterns in order to encourage success in various tasks that had previously remained evasive. Dickey's favourite game of 'hide-and-seek' invited Val and the girl to playfully search for his appearance and disappearance from the raft's edge. Thus, she learned to expect Dickey on the left, right or behind as prompted by Val's signals. With each success the girl was given herring to feed the Dolphin thus rewarding both creatures at once.

The two autistic adolescents in the Dolphin Pool reacted quite differently to their experiences. One was basically ignored by the Dolphin Pod but seemed oblivious to the missed opportunity. He continued to swim around in the pool unaware and unnoticed by the Dolphins. The other adolescent initially rejected the Dolphins but Domino's (a mature maternal female Dolphin) persistent approach could not be denied. Domino undeteredly sought attention from him much as a dog might place his head under the master's dangling hand to be petted. Soon his resistant detachment gave way to Domino's perseverance. She allowed him the enviable thrill of grabbing her dorsal fin and being towed playfully around the lagoon in a make believe roller coaster. Upon leaving the water his behaviour was undeniably extraordinary. He approached an attending carer on the beach and initiated a big hug of appreciation.

The six-month experiment with the Autistic group had mixed results. The ninety-minute journey in a mini bus back to the facility indicated an obvious advantage of those who had experienced contact with the Dolphins over those that didn't. The latter group appeared tired, exhausted and irritable during the journey. Conversely, the two residents who had Dolphin contact remained alert, curious and enthused. This promising result alas was short lived. By the next session, no appreciable distinction could be seen. It was difficult to argue for an extension of the experiment. Future sessions were curtailed in favour of outings to the local bowling alley.

I had agreed to meet Dr I Baruch of the Cita Institute at the Post Op ward of a local hospital. In the treatment room were two nurses and an anaesthesiologist. They were busily bent over a blond longhaired man. He was deeply asleep. Tubes, wires an oxygen mask and an IV seemed to cover every exposed part of his limp body. Every pore of his body seemed to be secreting fluid resembling the drops of moisture appearing on a frozen turkey placed in the sunlight to defrost.

Buckeye was undergoing a super intensive detoxification treatment after years of methadone addiction. With the aid of full anaesthetic and an experimental drug known as Naltraxone, Buckeye would be cleansed of all traces of narcotics in his system. The technique was so intensive it required general anaesthetic for its eight-hour duration. The usual torment of 'cold-turkey' would take a fraction of the time. Buckeye wouldn't even be aware of the upheaval that his body was enduring. Within a few hours, Naltraxone would unconditionally oust all traces of drug from his body. Remnants of chronic abuse would frantically seek any and every way out of his abused body leaving his neuroreceptors squeaky-clean. It was a novel and controversial treatment for drug abuse steadily gaining recognition and acceptance universally in various specialised clinics.

All that remained for Buckeye was to regularly ingest half a pill of Naltraxone every morning in order to neutralise the effect of drugs should there be a relapse. Psychotherapy was not provided since most of these patients had already undergone years of every type of therapy imaginable without much benefit. They had been therapised, medicalised, penalised and every other type of ...ised making them more expert than many specialists endeavouring to enlighten them.

However, Dr Baruch had recognised a problem in terminating treatment after two days of recuperation. Medically, Buckeye was drug free. His neuroreceptors were vacant and anxious to fill their belly with new stimuli. Abandoning Buckeye now would leave him with memories of undergoing an exhausting and mysterious process for which he had little recollection. We wanted him to 'turn on' to more natural experiences in life that can be enjoyed without drugs. We wanted him to rediscover the intoxicating colours, smells, noises and senses in Nature that could be enjoyed by anyone. Most of all, we wanted Buckeye to return to his drug infested world with enthusiastic testimonials of a successful, painfree treatment. The Dolphins and the surrounding environment seemed the perfect solution.

A package of adventure was designed around daily Dolphin swims. Most of the Dolphins related to Buckeye with their usual congenial invitations to touch and be touched. At times, they seemed to show off their agility in the water to Buckeye's sighs of wonderment. He tended to prolong the assigned forty-minute swim disregarding the frail condition of his health following the detoxification procedure. Buckeye was fascinated by the emission of noises by the Pod. Being a rock musician, Buckeye later tried to emulate these sounds via the electric organ at the reef's pub.

The surrounding desert landscape provided an abundance of natural experiences for Buckeye. It was winter. The occasional rainfall cleared fresh paths of dirt and stone to be explored. Buckeye took a camel ride at dusk, walked in total silence through the early morning canyons, reflected upon the variance of colour, shapes and smells. As the colouring of his skin grew more robust so did his appetite for life and nature. Buckeye ate with vigour, slept deeply, joked and recalled youthful days of naivety and optimism. After ten days Buckeye returned to his familiar world with a fund of pleasant drug free memories (reinforced by videotape of his experiences).

Recognition of our endeavours arrived in a flood of letters from an impressed public. They came from all over the world in a barely comprehensible tongue of mysticism and philosophy. Some included pictures, x-rays of auras, and even an object that closely resembled a partially consumed tuna fish sandwich on rye. Most of these were filed under 'Weird'. Not all of the correspondence was positive. We were admonished for encapturing and abusing the rights of the Dolphin. Some threatened revengeful acts of liberation. These too were filed under 'W'. (The Dolphins were kept in a natural lagoon with direct access to the open sea. During my period of involvement, I assisted in the birth of two dolphins at the reef.) I began receiving invitations to present our work with the Dolphins at various conventions and workshops. Overall, the professional establishment seemed very impressed and excited with the possibilities of 'Dolphin Therapy' yet equally apprehensive about committing themselves publicly to related projects for fear of peer condemnation. Conversely, Professor G. Theintz (Hopital de L'Enfance, Switzerland) had been pleased with the results of 'Dolphin Treatment' with one of his patients and was enquiring about the possibility of including this under the Swiss National Health Insurance.

We found common ground with other adventurous experiments in Animal-Human co-operation.5 Horse back riding was used to improve the well being and self-concept in the physically incapacitated.7 The presence of an aquarium in offices was shown to have a relaxing effect on its occupants. Increasingly, more and more domesticated pets (dogs, monkeys, cats, cockatiels, etc.) were being successfully used to comfort the sick, disabled and the elderly.1;4 Animals seemed to have become the surrogate carers in a society characterised by technological efficiency and the dubious advantages of being able to conduct one's life from the reclusive isolation of home.3

As part of an overall treatment strategy, the general benefits of Dolphin Therapy at the reef were undeniable. There was great improvement in self-concept and confidence in a seventeen-year-old girl suffering from severe physical abnormalities. A young boy regained trust in others breaking two years of self imposed silence after suffering repeated sexual abuse by his classmates. A terminally ill child found optimism to co-operate with the difficult medical treatment after reassuring swims with the Dolphin Pod. In others, Dolphin Therapy found ways to provide solace to the severely depressed, chronically anxious and painfully isolated.

Ever since the initial observations of Horace Dobbs2 with a wild Dolphin Pod off the coast of The Isle of Man, the interactions between Cetacean and Human has proven to be unique. In the United States this is called 'Dolphin Assisted Therapy'. There, Dr D. Nathanson has consistently reported improvement in attention span and learning ability with severely disabled children using Dolphins as a powerful motivator.6 Dr Nathanson, however, perceives Dolphins in a limited fashion as a positive reward 'object' in a behavioural programme. My experiences at The Reef have used some of Nathanson's technique (such as with the autistic girl on the platform) but have mostly allowed the interaction between Dolphin and client to develop naturally. The beneficial effects are undeniable, however, we are unable to distinguish between the specific effects of the Dolphins or the general effects of the facility (staff, water, sun, etc.). As an academic, many questions need to be investigated before definitive claims can be made about Dolphin Therapy. However, as a clinician there is no doubt that this unique modality of treatment has contributed significantly to the welfare of many individuals receiving treatment. Whether it is the Dolphin Sonar emissions, their permanently fixed anatomical smile, their playful nature or our mystical perception of them is unknown. One thing for sure, the presence of Dolphins produce an atmosphere unique in the therapy world. We must use this gift wisely taking care to protect the Dolphin from abuse and maltreatment.

This picture was channelled by connecting with the vibration of healing which dolphins emit from their energy field.
By placing your palm over the picture it is possible to receive the sensation of their loving healing energies.
This picture was created by Rosemary Angelis, who is a Psychic Artist and Vibrational Energy Facilitator.


1. Blue, G.F. (1986). The Value of Pets in Children's Life. Childhood Education. 42-90
2. Dobbs, H.E. (1977). Follow a Wild Dolphin. Souvenir Press Ltd. London, 258 pages.
3. Gonski, Y. (1985). The Therapeutic Utilization of Canines in a Welfare Setting. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal. 2. 93-105.
4. Jonas, C. et Feline, A. L'Animal De Compagnie Pour Le Malade Mental. Ann.Medical-Psychol., Paris, 1981, 139, no.7,741-757.
5. Levinson, B.M. (1984). Human/Companion Animal Therapy. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy. 14, 131-144.
6. Nathanson, D.E. (1989). Using Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins to Increase Cognition of Mentally Retarded Children. E. Science Publishers, (North-Holland), 1989.
7. Smith. (1985). Aquatic Remediation of Communication Disorders. Academic Therapy, 21, 229-23


  1. Catherine Wexler said..

    Hello: I enjoyed reading this article. I am almost envious of those having this therapy. I do believe that this type of therapy can be beneficial to many as long as the dolphin pod remains well treated. These mammals deserve our outmost respect because they have given much more of themselves than have received. I could go one and on, however, what I really want to do is to climb into an airplane and go the the lagoon and have such an experience myself. Perhaps someday in the near future.

  2. Ember said..

    This article really illustrated how wild animals are used to benefit humans. I have a couple questions, are the dolphins free to leave or are they captive? Second, how did the dolphins come to be part of therapy? Was it like in the film The Cove, where dolphins were rounded up, trapped, the lucky ones were selected for Sea World etc, while the others were slaughtered and eaten? Or did they sign up? This article highlighted how the hubris of humans takes from nature. This is not a mutual relationship. You should totally check out The Cove. I think from what I have read, you will like it.

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About David Wolgroch

David Wolgroch received his degree in Clinical Psychology in 1980 from East Carolina University (U.S.A.). As an Israeli Certified Clinical Psychologist he was regional director of psychological services in a part of southern Israel and directed a private therapy centre in Eilat, Israel before coming to the U.K. in 1995. He now resides and works in North London. He can be reached at : 020-8346 9143 (or email:

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