Research on The Impact of Dolphins on Children's Mental Health

Whitney Dominick, Ph.D., conducted a case study as part of her dissertation research on the impact of swimming with wild dolphins on children with a variety of developmental disorders. During the summer of 2018, while participating in the Water Planet Internship program, Whitney worked with four children who were participating in the Harmony and Serenity therapy programs. She took each child’s heart rate before and after going out on the boats to swim with the wild dolphins each day as well as interviewing the children’s caregivers at the end of the program and one month after the program ended. As the therapy programs are tailored to each specific child and no child is forced beyond their comfort level, the results varied. 3 of the 4 children showed a decrease in heart rate both over the course of the therapy program and from before to after the dolphin interaction each day. While the fourth child did not show a decrease in heart rate, this child spent most of the program becoming comfortable being in the water and did not enter the water when the dolphins were present. The majority of caregivers reported a decrease in stress over the course of the therapy program, and all of them considered the therapy program both helpful and enjoyable.

Whitney graduated with her Ph.D. from Oakland University in 2020 and moved to Panama City Beach in 2021 to continue her research on the impact of wild dolphin therapy on children. She has expanded her research to include assessments of mood, self-esteem, and happiness adapted for non-verbal children, along with continuing to interview caregivers and gather heart rate data. Whitney’s goal is to continue gathering empirical data regarding the efficacy of wild dolphin therapy on children’s emotion regulation skills, stress, and self-esteem. She is excited to continue working with children between the ages of 7 and 17 who are participating in the therapy programs. Ultimately, she hopes to collaborate with Water Planet on a research-based therapy program designed for children with emotional and behavioral disorders.”

For a full transcript of this dissertation, please click here.


A University of Montreal student in Child and Youth Care Work (translated from the French: psychoeducation), previous Water Planet intern, has spent the month of June and July of 2004 and the summer of 2005 in Panama City for the field research portion of a Masters thesis meant to shed some light on the subject of Dolphin Assisted Therapy.
The subject of her dissertation is “The impact of the Water Planet Harmony Program on the adaptative behaviors of children with pervasive developmental disorders”.


Genevieve David had selected Panama City Beach and Water Planet’s Harmony Program as a platform for her data collection. Specific screening criteria (outline below) were used to select a limited number of children, who were observed and video taped in their daily activities before and after they travelled to Florida. Genevieve interviewed the parents in order to corroborate the child’s behaviors. The children were sporadically video taped during their week at Water Planet. Back in Quebec, Genevieve has analyzed the data collected on the children’s behavior by running it through a standardized cipher stencil. This was done in conjunction with another interview with the parents to have their perception of the child’s behavior after their week with Water Planet. Follow up interviews with the parents were conducted 1 months, 3 months and 6 months after the program at Water Planet.

The children were signed up with their parents to a 1-week structured program (Harmony) in Panama City Beach, Florida. During the week, four 4-hour boat trips gave the children and their families the opportunity to have close in-water encounters with wild bottlenose dolphins in their natural environment along the beaches of Shell Island on the Gulf of Mexico. All the activities were facilitated and supervised by qualified staff. The children were not forced to get in the water. They did it at their own pace.

The second half of the day was spent on land with a series of sensory stimulation workshops including expressive arts, aquatic bodywork and musical games. The main theme was of course dolphins and the marine environment.
The goal of this research project is to verify the assumption that participating in such an intensive sensory integration program including wild dolphin therapies can significantly improve the adaptative behaviors of children with pervasive developmental disorders either by qualitatively or quantitatively improving the child’s ability to communicate, to socialize and/or to improve his/her interests and behaviors.

Genevieve David has spent the summer of 2006 in Panama City to continue her data collection in order to broaden and confirm the results of the first part of her study. At the same time, she functioned as Internship and Research Coordinator for Water Planet. Together with the Water Planet management, she has setup and implemented the new interns training program and continued her research data collection. Genevieve David has successfully completed her Masters Degree thesis in the fall of 2007 (contact us for a full version in PDF format in French only). The research project continues and we encourage parents with children diagnosed with PDD to participate.


  • The child must be enrolled in the Harmony Program.
  • The child must be diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder (autisme, Asperger Syndrome, Rett Syndrome , disintegrative disorder and atypical autism 1 or 2) by a healthcare professional.
  • The child must be between 3 and 18 years of age.
  • He must be comfortable in the water (He must not necessarily know how to swim).
  • He should not be afraid of animals.
  • The other aspects of the child’ personality will add to the diversity of the case study.

The families are responsible for all program’s costs as set by Water Planet as well as for all travel, food and board expenses associated with this program. The families who want to participate in the research will need to fill out questionnaires before the program and after the program. Three adults involved in the child’s life will be asked to fill out these questionnaires: the 2 parents and one of the child’s therapist or teacher.


The families participating in this project will be contributing to the advancement of the knowledge we presently have of alternative therapies available to children with pervasive developmental disorders.

At the end of the week in Florida, parents will receive a report on the child’s behavior throughout the program.

Our Programs coordinator will make herself available to your questions and will offer advice on how to manage your child’s behavior.

  • The families who are interested in participating will be asked to produce a short video (5 x 10 minutes) of their child at home before their trip to Water Planet in Florida. The goal of this video is to provide basic information about the child in his/her home environment before he/she participates to the Harmony Program. This video will remain strictly confidential and will be used for this research project only.
  • Each parent will be asked to independently fill out a questionnaire covering their perception of the strong points and weaknesses of their child.


The Program coordinator will meet with the families before the program in order to facilitate the bonding process and also to make sure that the families are comfortable and ready for the week ahead.

The reactions of the children on the boat, in the water, and as they are going through the different sensory stimulation workshops will be assessed. The children’s social interactions will also be evaluated while they interact with their parents and staff. The data collected will remain strictly confidential and will be used solely for the purpose of this research project.

Before they leave, the Harmony Program Coordinator will meet with the parents to hear their comments, evaluate their own experience and the perceptions they had of their child’s reactions and behavior throughout the week.


Once the parents are back home, the parents will be asked to shoot a second video of the child under the same circumstances as the footage obtained before the trip. This is meant to compare manifested behaviors before and after the interventions.

Ms. David will analyze the video tapes with at least one observer to verify if changes in the child’s adaptative behavior have occurred during the week with Water Planet

The parents and the child’s teacher or therapist, who had filled out the pre-intervention questionnaire will sent another questionnaire about their perceptions of the child’s adaptative behaviors 1 month, 3 months and 6 months after the child’s participation to the Water Planet’s Harmony Program. (Questionnaires will be exchanged by post or by e-mail.)

The data will analyzed and the results published by Genevieve David in a scientific journal.


Genevieve David has published an article (available in French only) entitled : “Est-il ethique de proposer la delphinotherapie comme moyen d’intervention aupres des enfants autistes, compte tenu des connaissances actuelles sur le sujet? ” (PDF file). It is a litterary revue and a critic of the scientific publications on the subject of Dolphin Assisted Therapy.
Another publication (in French but with abstract in English) co-authored by Genevieve David and 2 university professors introducing the psychological and cognitive effects observed by B. Smith, D. Nathanson and V. Servais, was produced with a section on the psychophysiological studies by S. Birch, D. Cole and O. DeBergerac. This publication was presented in the fall of 2006 at the ACFAS congress (Association Canadienne Francaise pour l’Avancement de la Science – French Canadian Association for the Advancement of Science)

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