Dolphin-Assisted Therapy: Something Magical in the Water

One facet of the dolphins gifts, perhaps the most profound one, seems to be their ability to manifest unconditional love. They are infinitely patient with special needs children.
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Matteo and Marco are therapists who work together. Mateo is uneducated and intuitive. Marco is fully credentialed and certified. Yet, Marco is lavish in his praise of Mateo's techniques. "I consider him an equal co-therapist," he says.

Mateo is a dolphin. Yes, a dolphin. Marco is Marco Kuerschner, head therapist at the Curacao Dolphin Therapy and Research Center (CDTC). As I watch the two of them in the water working with a boy in a "waking coma," Marco tells me that he often takes the lead from Mateo when the dolphin suggests a procedure.

Esther Kooijman, the head dolphin trainer, told me of the time that Mateo refused a signal to gently propel a boy by this feet through the water. Instead he used his rostrum (beak) to press along another part of the child's body. When the therapist exited the water, he mentioned to the parents that Mateo had avoided the child's foot. "Oh, of course," the parent said. "I forgot to tell you that he recently had surgery on that foot." No one had to tell Mateo.

Very often the therapists tell me of their experience of working with patients in their office. They devise their plans for the day, only to find that the dolphins already know what needs to be done when the therapist and patient come to the water. They do so without signals or instructions. Most often it is what the therapist was thinking of; sometimes, as Marco is quick to testify, Mateo has another plan, and it is a good one.

This aspect -- the dolphins seeming ability to read the patient -- is only one aspect of what they seem to bring to the exchanges.

It is said that gazing into the dolphin's eyes is also a profound experience. One mother said that her child with autism looked at her for the first time after working with the dolphins. It has been said that some children begin to walk, communicate and interact differently after these experiences. On a psychological level, depression is sometimes lifted, and world views changed.

Yet, another facet of the dolphins gifts, perhaps the most profound one, seems to be their ability to manifest unconditional love. They are infinitely patient with special needs children, and tend to favor over their siblings who may also be invited into the water. They seem to favor children over parents, as well. They appear to hone in on the most vulnerable, and they respond to them with infinite kindness.

Here is what I witnessed and learned at CDTC. There were positive, even sometimes remarkable improvements in the lives and abilities of some children with autism, with Down's Syndrome, with Cerebral Palsy and even in some in "waking comas." (Waking comas refers to a condition in which the children seem unable to respond physically, but their brains in tests show signs of responding to commands, and can selectively think of performing a requested action).

I didn't go cynically to explore the Curacao Dolphin Therapy and Research Center, but I did carry with me the possible concern that, should I find wonders, you might say "where's the proof" or "you're not being fair to the dolphins." And I wanted to be able to find the right message, and deliver it.


"The Proof"
In another column I'll detail the many talents of dolphins that exceed ours, and that I find nearly beyond belief. For now, I'll mention some of the studies on, and some of the speculations about, their abilities.

How could these sea animals possibly do therapy? There are many theories. Something seems to happen in the water with dolphins. When I first lay down in it, I was stunned to hear the electric sounds that filled the sea around me. The crackling was alive and felt -- as much as it sounded -- like the water had been turned to champagne. It's a vibration others describe as popcorn, or the crackling of a roaring fire. The water, which feels charged, awakens something within us. Divers tell me that boat captains always advise them that if they encounter wild dolphins they will come up ecstatic. Why?

In an ongoing pilot study -- Researching the Effects of Dolphin Assisted Therapy at CDTC on Brain Activity -- in cooperation with the German Society of Air and Space Medicine and Research, DolphinAid and the Neurological Clinic Vogtareuth, scientists used water-proof EEG equipment to measure how human brain waves change in interactions with dolphins. The preliminary results have been called "promising." Other research, including an accredited project on children, dolphins and depression, is noted below.(1)

One hypothesis suggests that our brain waves sync to be in resonance with the frequencies of those of dolphins when we're exposed to them. Our normal activity in everyday thought is in beta wavelength. Upon exposure to dolphins, our brainwaves have been measured to go into alpha (the relaxation, effortless alertness, peak performances, daydreaming state, producing lower anxiety and better immune system function) and theta (the meditative state). Moreover, an increase by significant measure of hemispheric synchronization (the balancing of right and left hemispheres in the brain, which is associated with heightened awareness and increased ability to learn) was registered. (2)

Since our normal activity in everyday thought is in beta, we go into alpha during the "ah-ha" phenomenon when we have a great idea while driving or showering. You've doubtless had that wonderful experience. It's a gestalt, out of time, not a linear thought to be explained in one word after another, even as you read these consecutive words here. Rather it is grasped as a whole and then later translated into its discrete units. Einstein explained it to a friend this way: "Thoughts did not come in any verbal formation. I rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I try to express it in words afterward." That time-free knowing is exhilarating for certain. And this may partly explain the feeling.

Then there's the sonar.

Dolphins use their sonar/ultrasound to scan the world around them. Medical science uses ultrasound in pregnancies and for diagnostic information, to promote healing and to destroy cataracts, kidney stones and gallstones. Sounds in general can influence our biology, such as our heart rate. Ultrasonic energy from dolphins, is four times stronger than that applied medically. The medium through which it is transmitted, water, has an efficiency of delivering sound that is 60 times more efficient than air.

Because our bodies are primarily made of water, including the fluid that moves from the brain to the spinal cord, this interaction may be extremely defining. It may even help to reduce adhesions and scarring from old surgeries. (3) (4) They read the world around them, almost like an X-ray, with this capacity which even the Navy has discovered very useful. This is likely how Mateo knew about the boy's surgery. (5)

What About The Dolphins Rights?
When I write about therapy dolphins, I'm not talking at all about dolphins in shows where they become circus performers. I am not talking about capturing wild dolphins and, in fact, that has thankfully been against the law in U.S. waters under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act with some modifications since 1972.

I am hoping you will see that dolphins who are involved in this important work must be treated as the care givers that they are. I am aware that this may be controversial; there are those who would say that we are taking advantage of the dolphins and all should be set free. The fact that some 300,000 dolphins in the wild die annually in nets gives the idea of "freedom in the wild" some pause.

The best answers I've heard and seen with my own eyes are that those dolphins who are doing this work mostly were born into it and seem to do it out of love, the way many people are devoted to helping others in nursing and care-giving professions.

I say that because many of the dolphins born in captivity chose to remain in the homes that they know. Experiments both in Eilat Israel and during hurricanes in the U.S. have shown that when dolphins have been offered the option of freedom and are set free to go, most chose not to. Sometimes the young males decided to explore, and finding nothing as good as they had back "home," they returned.

Moreover, setting dolphins who are accustomed to trusting humans into the wild can endanger them. They have been known to approach boats where they may be at the mercy of cruel or irresponsible people who will take advantage of them and possibly harm them.

Almost all the dolphins at CDTC were born in captivity. They have calves who grow up in domestic situations. There are many rescued dolphins -- older dolphins who had been in aquariums, etc. -- and for them, as it is for guide dogs and dogs and cats who visit hospitals, this is an honorable life. We are all at our best when we have a purpose.

I have seen dolphins who are treated well and treated even as partners in the therapy; dolphins who take great pride in attending to patients, and seem to do it because they choose to.

Mateo had been ill when I first met him. He had been "sent to bed" by the veterinarian and taken off the schedule so that he could recover. However, Mateo didn't wish to be sidelined. He showed up at his position and waited for his child. "He still seeks interaction with children. It's important for Matteo to make the decision himself," Marco said.

Marco says that, although the dolphins are fed fish as they work, Mateo would willingly work the full hour without fish if he's allowed to do the therapy his way. I myself saw him extending a session after the fish were gone and the other dolphins had finished with their patients, just because he had another thought about what might help the boy in coma.

The Future of Dophin-Assisted Therapy (DAT)
Swimming with wild or penned dolphins is not dolphin-assisted therapy, although having any exchange with them, as with horses, dogs and cats, can be a therapeutic experience. Dolphin-assisted therapy requires a wide variety of physical and clinical therapists, trainers, veterinarians, vast expanses of water and great care for the dolphins and the patients. Anything short of a scientifically proven, medically correct, therapeutically approved facility may be just a jump on a bandwagon that doesn't ultimately support all concerned and could lead to disappointment. And it is not my hope to encourage anything less than the highest levels of experience for all concerned.

While in Curasao, I had dinner with Kristen "KiKi" Kuhnert, program director at CDTC. She told me the story of her son, Timmy, who as a toddler had drowned in a tragic accident and been revived. Sadly, he remained in a coma for many months. Desperate for help, she heard about Dolphin-assisted therapy and brought her son from Germany to America for a therapeutic experience with dolphins. On his fourth visit, Timmy woke up, not only woke up but laughed. Although he remained physically disabled, his mind was responsive and he was able to interact again with the world.

Kiki was so impressed with the dolphins effect that she began an organization called Dolphinaid, which raises funds around the world for those children who would most benefit from this therapy.

Dolphinaid can also provide guidelines so that people can find certified DAT locations where dolphins are treated well, therapists in a variety of disciplines are provided and everything is in place for the best possible outcomes.

DAT isn't a panacea; it is expensive, and until insurance companies believe that it will make a difference, it's not covered. There are no guarantees and not all programs have the knowledge, standards and personnel to do it right.

But while I was at CDTC, Marco received in the mail a book written by the mother of a young man with autism who is also an artist. The young man had visited Matteo several times and their interactions had shifted him to a level at which his expression became not only verbal but was, in his mother's words, "transformed." In her book, "An Unexpected Life," Debra Chwast describes her son Seth's experience with Mateo. She talks about the "completing of the circles" of conversation, which is so difficult in children with autism, of your turn to talk and mine. She says, Seth "and Marco took turns, never interrupted each other and made circles nonstop. They did it without using a single word ... Bypassing what we call language, they had communication that was functional and joyful." Seth's maturity and self-determination were much improved and now he now has many gallery showings of his artwork as a result. I looked at Marco's face as he showed me the book. He was as proud of Mateo and Seth as he could be.

And by the way, that boy in the waking coma? It's believed he's aware, somewhere locked inside (in what Marco considered "a transient state of perception"), and after only two weeks of communicating with Mateo, Marco says the boy has begun to "initiate, coordinate and reproduce" vocalizations for the first time in two and a half years. This presented what Marco called "a quantum leap in his perspective." His parents were amazed.

You may know that I teach Verbal First Aid™ around the world. It focuses on the power of words to help the healing, and I have been thrilled with what has been accomplished along those lines. Imagine my delight when I explored for myself the magical ways that Non-Verbal First Aid exists in a dynamic with a being whose manner, beyond words, is healing. (5)

I will write in future columns about how Cranio-Sacral therapists and dolphins team up to help adults as well as children, and about the many unsung talents of dolphins.

There's something magic in the water. It is transformative, and I believe it won't be long before science catches up with it. Our next steps as conscious humans must include finding a way to learn from the dolphins and become healing beings of unconditional love, as they are.

Judith Simon Prager, Ph.D. is co-author of: "The Worst Is Over: What To Say When Every Moment Counts," "Verbal First Aid: Help Your Kids Heal From Fear And Pain--And Come Out Strong," and author of "Verbal First Aid for Kids: A Somewhat Magical Way to Help Yourself and Your Friends Heal."

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