Dolphin-assisted therapy: more pseudoscience?

Everybody loves dolphins. They say wild dolphins have been known to save a human's life every now and then. So it only makes sense that swimming with dolphins would be a good thing, right? Wrong. A recently published meta-analysis of the last few years of studies of the alleged benefits -- so-called Dolphin Assisted Therapy -- confirms what I and, according to another recent paper, many others have long suspected.

The evidence, it seems, doesn't support claims that children and some adults suffering from physical and mental illnesses can improve their health by getting in the water and interacting with dolphins (usually bottlenose dolphins, Tursiops truncatus). Every now and then a study pops up that purports to find real benefits to DAT, but when Lori Marino and Scott O. Lilienfeld of Emory University in Georgia put those studies under the microscope, they found all suffered from serious methodological shortcomings. (Anthrozo&oulm;s, DOI: 10.2752/089279307X224782).

They did the same thing eight years ago. Their new paper is basically a repeat of that analysis, using the literature published since then. Back in 1998 they concluded "the current evidence for the efficacy of DAT can at best be described as thoroughly unconvincing." Since things have gotten worse, as you can tell from the title of their 2007 paper: "Dolphin-Assisted Therapy: More Flawed Data and More Flawed Conclusions."

The surprising paucity of scientific evidence for the long-term effects of DAT raises profoundly troubling ethical questions regarding its widespread use and promotion. There is abundant evidence for injuries sustained by participants in DAT programs (Frohoff and Packard 1995; Samuels and Spradlin 1995; Webster, Neil and Madden 1998). Moreover, interactions between dolphins and humans carry a significant risk of infections and parasitism for both humans and dolphins (Geraci and Ridgway1991). Therefore, DAT poses important ethical questions from the standpoint of human and captive dolphin welfare. At the very least, we believe that DAT practitioners should be required to inform parents and, when relevant, participants, of the absence of evidence for DAT's enduring effects on psychological symptoms.

Among the problems they found in the studies were absence of controls, no attempt to eliminate placebo effect through blind tests, changes in dependent values -- the whole gamut.

Of course, it's easy to criticize others' work. That's what we bloggers do for kicks. But given a rather lengthy history of injuries suffered by those who naively thought dolphins would never hurt them, and the risk of disease transfer, you'd like to think that there would be a bit more regulatory oversight of the facilities that offer these therapeutic shams.

We all know that exposure to domesticated animals can be good for those who are ill, depressed or just plain lonely. Well-trained dogs and cats make good pets. But dolphins, usually taken from the wild, can be extremely unpredictable and aggressive creatures, particularly the males. (The wild dolphins of Shark Bay in Western Australia, the ones that let tourists pet them, are all female. The males want nothing to do with humans, other than scavenge our fishing boat scraps.) There's a good reason why trying to swim with dolphins in the wild is illegal in U.S. waters.

I would never put my son into a tank or ocean corral to swim with a dolphin with whom w weren't familiar. And even then. But many parents do, not because they are bad parents, but because they've fallen victim to the disease of wishful thinking that accompanies the misleading public reputation with which dolphins have been saddled.

Curiously, though, it seems that many past users of these DAT facilities feel at least somewhat skeptical about the whole thing. In "Swimming with captive dolphins: current debates and post-experience dissonance" (International Journal of Tourism Research, 9(2): 131-146), Susanna Curtin and Keith Wilkes of Bournemouth University, Dorset, report that "Post-purchase dissonance focused on concerns with the size of enclosures and about captivity, too many tricks, limited interpretation and unfulfilled expectations of a quality interaction."

Which is just what you'd expect from operators who are peddling pseudoscience and placebo treatments.


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By tourettist (not verified) on 04 Sep 2007 #permalink

Having swum with wild spinner and bottlenose dolphins at Shaab Samadai in Egypt on a number of occasions I can certainly vouch for the pleasure and peace of mind such an experience can bring....however...having revisited Shaab Samadia a few years ago hoping to repeat the experience and met the loving but ultimately desperate-to-believe parents of an ill boy who was there I really have no time for those making money off the dolphins and the victims of illness by providing false hope in this way, not to mention these were at least wild dolphins. Knowing how most captive dolphins ultimately come to their facilities makes it a thousand times worse.

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) has recently chosen to start a campaign against Dolphin-Assisted Therapy (DAT). Using a recently published paper, they have claimed to have scientific evidence that DAT is ineffective.

There are a few problems with this...

As the founding Director of the Cetacean Studies Institute, founded in 1996, and long-time researcher into the effectiveness of Dolphin-Assisted Therapy (DAT), I feel compelled to comment.

The review of DAT research cited by WDCS written by Marino and Lilienfeld has many errors in it. Titled "Dolphin-Assisted Therapy: More Flawed Data, more flawed conclusions", it is itself littered with flaws.

Without any clear definition of what Dolphin-Assisted Therapy is, the Marino-Lilienfeld paper makes unsupported accusations against well-developed and well-proven therapeutic programs of therapy that include dolphins. It does not adequately differentiate between real DAT programs and "swim-with-dolphins" programs.

The paper suggests, for instance, that any person swimming with dolphins is undertaking some kind of intentional therapy. It cites research having to do with injuries sustained by people in commercial swim programs, and only one side of the debate about whether diseases can be transmitted between dolphins and humans as part of its basis for suggesting that DAT is an "unsubstantiated intervention".

Here is the final conclusion in this paper:

"At the very least, we believe that DAT practitioners should be required
to inform parents and, when relevant, participants, of the absence of evidence for DAT's enduring effects on psychological symptoms. Only then can consumers of DAT make adequately informed decisions regarding the costs and benefits of this unsubstantiated intervention."

Yes, DAT is, so far, unsubstantiated by the research cited by Marino et al.. Does this mean that it is ineffective?

The main issue here is whether DAT has a positive and long-lasting effect on the lives of patients and their families. Instead of asking this question, which would necessitate actual research, extensive interviews, arranging for standardized measuring instruments to be deployed to discover and document changes, and a host of other expensive and time consuming research, Marino and Lilienfeld have taken the safe arm-chair route. They have reviewed the very few research papers ever published to see if they can stand up to an extremely rigorous analysis of their scientific validity.

Reviewing the validity of research is not the same as doing research.

Where Marino and Lilienfeld find flaws in the published research, we all gain by knowing that the conclusions reached in the original research may be tainted. This does not condemn DAT per se, but does show how the research could have been done better.

In our many years of studying DAT, visiting facilities, interviewing therapists, patients, family members, trainers, doctors, medical technicians, as well as filming dozens of sessions, collecting patient stories, and operating a small Wellness Program ourselves, we have seen many wonderful results.

Literally thousands of families have had their entire family history changed for the better through the effectiveness of good DAT programs.

To date no one has created an accurate definition of Dolphin-Assisted Therapy. However, just as the Supreme Court Justice said, "I know it when I see it", one can visit some of the DAT programs around the world to see what it is. We recommend Island Dolphin Care, in Key Largo, Florida ( as the most professional, effective, and long term program, under trained medical professionals, run as a non-profit organization, as the model for high standards.

The results are the means by which to evaluate DAT.

Our program ( here in Australia works with rescued dolphins and their progeny. These dolphins would be dead, long ago, if they had not been rescued. Now, as dolphins living among humans, it is important that they have life experiences that are enriching, stimulating, and as safe as possible to help them maintain their health. We know that our interactions with these dolphins are a real benefit to them as well as a benefit to those people who swim among them.

DAT needs to be investigated more fully. Research needs to be done by competent, well-funded scientists, who have no bias or agenda to push. Until this is done, we will have ill-informed campaigns such as the WDCS campaign, and the misdirection of papers such as the one by Marino and Lilienfeld.

Scott Taylor
Cetacean Studies Institute
Coffs Harbour, Australia

By Scott Taylor (not verified) on 28 Nov 2007 #permalink