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"Diviner than the dolphin is nothing yet created"

Oppian of Silica Greece, 200 AD, in McCulloch (1998)

olphin assisted therapy is often viewed as a mystical or magical phenomenon. Large amounts of money, time and hope are invested in pursuit of an encounter with these animals in order to achieve a therapeutic goal. As a therapeutic endeavour, Dolphin Assisted Therapy (DAT) originally emerged from the animal assisted therapy arena. It was initially used as a behaviour modification phenomenon, with principals imported from other reportedly successful interventions functioning on a reward system. The cetaceans are used as a reward for desirable cognitive, physical or affective responses. The purpose of the program is motivational, with specific behaviours related to speech, language, gross and fine motor movement, development, rote or conceptual thinking. When a positive attempt or correct response is elicited, The Individual, usually a child, is rewarded by the dolphin encounter. The supposedly strong desire to interact with dolphins was thought to prompt attention span increases in cognitively challenged individuals. Although regular, long term administration of DAT is not feasible, it was hoped that interacting with dolphins in a motivational capacity would instigate higher levels of functioning (McCulloch, 1998), complementing and reinforcing more conventional interventions (Nathanson, 1995).

Although still maturing, the research paradigm grew from the need to objectively investigate anecdotal reports of therapeutic gains instigated by dolphin interaction. It is a field with little empirical data, absence of standard criteria of what constitutes therapeutic progress (Limond, Bradshaw & Cormack, 1997), and many anecdotal accounts describing improvements of a wide range of disorders. Enthusiasm as well as cynicism have been generated (Birch,1997).

Nathanson (1980), who was one of the first to systematically investigate potential applications of dolphins in a therapeutic sense, drew on an attention deficit hypothesis to explain some disabled individuals' learning and motivation difficulties (Nathanson, 1987). He suggested that some mentally retarded individuals' relative struggle to learn is primarily a deficit in physiological attention to relevant dimensions of stimuli, rather than information processing inadequacy. He reasoned that by attempting to increase their attention span through introducing a novel stimuli, a window through which learning could occur, might be created (Nathanson, 1980, 1989).

Although there had been reports of success in achieving these goals in the presence of domestic animals, Nathanson believed that the novelty of interacting with an exotic animal, such as a dolphin would be more powerful in gaining and sustaining the attention of these cognitively challanged individuals, whose attention and motivation deficits were extreme. Dolphins were also selected due to the relative ease with which they can be trained, their patience and the popular view of them as gentle animals. A series of studies by Nathanson and his associates formed the basis for 10,000 clinical session conducted on 700 children over an 8 year period.

Although in most of these sessions, interacting with dolphins was paired with attempts to expand academic potential, other dolphin swim facilities have reportedly documented improvements in behaviour and attention span after participants observed or interacted with wild or captive dolphins (The Human Dolphin Institute, 1997). However there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the validity of findings in this field since replication is often difficult. Perhaps researchers in this field are oblivious to the maxim never work with children or animals. There is an absence of standard criteria for what constitutes therapeutic progress and large difference between the methodology and applications used by researchers and facilitators around the world.

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