Using Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins to Increase Cognition of Severely Handicapped Children
IAAAM 1988
David E. Nathanson, PhD, Director
Dolphin/Child Research, Dolphin Research Center, Grassy Key, FL

Research in the use of animals to help humans has increased dramatically in the last decade. Animals such as dogs, cats, birds, horses and dolphins have been used as facilitators of human interaction, as stress reducers, as helpers in alleviating depression, and as helpers for the physically handicapped. Measures of animal effectiveness in various therapies have included observational scales, response interviews and physiological indices such as lowered cardiovascular response to stress.

Unlike other human animal research, the work described here investigated cognitive responses of six severely mentally and multiply handicapped children to interaction with Atlantic bottlenose dolphins at Dolphin Research Center, Grassy Key, Florida. The Attention Deficit hypothesis suggests that the inability of mentally retarded children to learn is a function of a deficit in physiological attention to the relevant dimensions of a stimulus, rather than an inability to process information. If true, then increasing attention to a stimulus should result in increased learning.

Many studies document the attention value of animals for all children. Which animals, then, under what conditions, will provide the greatest cognitive improvement for children who, by definition, have significantly impaired cognitive functioning? More importantly, would the use of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins significantly increase the rate of learning compared to the rate of learning achieved by standard procedures used in classrooms and individualized therapies?

A multiple baseline across subject's single subject research design was used to assess the effect of interaction with dolphins on voluntary motor action, speech, language and memory. It was predicted that using Atlantic bottlenose dolphins as part of both the stimulus and reinforcement would significantly increase the rate above levels obtained using normal learning procedures. The six subjects included three Down syndrome male infants, 20-24 months of age; a 6 year old male with hydrocephaly, mental retardation, and cerebral palsy; a 6 year old male with expressive aphasia, mental retardation, and impaired gross motor function as a result of meningitis at seven months; and a 10 year old profoundly retarded male with severe gross and fine motor impairment as a result of a rare genetic anomaly.

All children were pretested on the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) to establish a baseline for selecting words to be learned. The PPVT consists of single black line drawings of objects and concepts on a white background. Each child was assigned a series of five to ten pictures they could not identify from standardized and equivalent forms of the PPVT. Pictures were transferred to one foot square boards and were assigned for use with a human teacher alone and with human and dolphin teachers working together. Picture boards used in each experimental condition were matched for syllabication and level of difficulty.

Prior to research, novelty effects were controlled by giving each child sessions swimming with dolphins. In research, children were taught by the experimenter in a small, non-distracting room, and by humans and dolphins in the fenced in dolphin pools. Order of presentation was counterbalanced, so that children each week worked with dolphins before or after working with the experimenter alone. With dolphins, the picture board was thrown in the water, the dolphin (1 male and 3 females were used) retrieved the board, and the trainer held up the board in front of the child, The trainer then said, for example "This is a car". Car with the word "car" said no more than five times in any trial. If the child responded properly (either reaching to touch the board, saying the correct first consonant sound, saying the word, or remembering the word on second trials when the board was held up and being asked "What is this?"), then an appropriate reward meaningful to each child was given. Rewards included feeding, petting, watching the dolphin perform tricks or swimming with the dolphin. If the child responded inappropriately or not at all, no reward was given and the next board was thrown in the water.

The same procedure was used in the teaching room away from the dolphins, except the reward for the correct response was a hug and/or kiss, and verbal praise. All sessions with dolphins and in the teaching room were videotaped. Results in the teaching room were used as the baseline in the experimental design, since the teaching room simulated the setting of individualized teaching and learning the children received in school.

Figure 1.
Figure 1.

Dolphin has pushed board back to dock. Child must say "drum".

Figure 2.
Figure 2.

Child has correctly said "drum". He can now pet dolphin as reward.


With every child, teaching human language using dolphins was clearly superior to use of standard teaching procedures. In some cases, a child vocalized or said a word for the first time in his life only with dolphins as part of the teaching. Rates of learning varied from child to child, but in all cases the attention value of dolphins was many times that of standard procedures.

The four dolphins used in the research all seemed to enjoy working with the children. Results of the research indicate that the potential for using dolphins to help sick or handicapped people is significant.

The use of dolphins, as opposed to use of land animals, does a better job of incorporating all the tactile, kinesthetic and esthetic features necessary to help handicapped people learn. The water provides buoyancy and helps control distractibility, as does the sight and feel of the dolphins. Children focus their eyes, listen longer, reach out to touch, and correctly respond more when they work with dolphins. Rate of learning is accelerated, sometimes beyond what was previously thought possible.

We have just scratched the surface.

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David E. Nathanson, PhD

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