Featured Image Credit: dolphins-world.com
By Eva Gruber
Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach, Florida has several dolphins in residence that are part of a special program for children with developmental issues. Speech Pathologist Dr. Janet Flowers began using dolphins in her speech therapy programs 15 years ago. Inspired by the great success seen with other forms of animal-assisted therapy, Dr. Flowers began researching dolphin facilities to find the best match for her budding program.
She visited facilities in Mexico and Florida before choosing the Gulf World Marine Park in 2002. She believed that it was the best facility to work with, containing the best, healthiest and happiest dolphins. Half of the dolphins that Dr. Flowers uses for her programs are actually disabled themselves, and are therefore considered un-releasable.
She believes that this is part of what makes them so relatable to the children with developmental disabilities. When they see a dolphin that is like them, they relate and can bond on a whole other level. The compassion that they feel for the dolphin is something that they can then transfer on to themselves.
The dolphins benefit from the interactions as well. In the program, the dolphins themselves must choose to come up and interact with the humans. None of them are ever forced into performing, they participate because they want to – part of the reason why this experience is so healing all around. “I’ve actually had children that were seven and had never spoken a word,” said Dr. Flowers, “and they spoke their first word to a dolphin.”
Dolphin therapy is similar in its approach to other animal-assisted therapies such as equine and canine therapy. It is thought that with therapy animals, children with disabilities are able to bring up a new bond and emotions which are just not possible with other human beings. Animals are completely devoid of judgement, and that may play a big role in the emotional breakthroughs that they can guide.
Dr. Flowers organization is a non-profit – the Dr. Janet Flowers Institute. There is a committee that evaluates and chooses the children that will participate in the program. The children must be ages three to thirteen years old. There are a range of programs, including the intensive therapy sessions which pair skills taught alongside the emotionally arousing experience of interacting with a dolphin.
If you would like to know more about the Institute, the dolphin therapy program, or how you can enroll your child, then visit her website here.