If you want to become an animal therapist, the first thing toconsider is whether you will want to do animal-assistedtherapy as a full-time career, a part-time vocation as oneaspect of a larger career, or perhaps simply as an unpaid vol-unteer. Because AAT is a relatively new field, there is notyet an established “career track” that everyone can or mustfollow. If you have an independent spirit and enjoy findingyour own path in the world, though, there are many ways tolearn about AAT, and to prepare for a career that employsthe basic standards and practices that have been developedby pioneers in the field for the past several decades.Any person who wants to enter the field of animal-assisted activities or animal-assisted therapy must be versa-tile and interested in pursuing a well-rounded education.The more knowledge you can gain about human and animalbehavior and health, the better prepared you’ll be to con-tribute to the field of AAT and to help the people who needit most. Although that can mean a formal college or gradu-ate school degree, there are many opportunities for highschool students and graduates willing to seek out otherkinds of specialized training.Start by looking at your own strengths and weaknesses(your school guidance counselor may be able to help youwith this). Chances are, if you’re interested in AAT, youalready know that you love animals, and the idea of usingyour own positive experiences with them to help other peoplesounds great. But what kind of people will you help? Before venturing into the field, think about the different people whocan be helped with animal-assisted therapy, and about howyou might best contribute. Be honest with yourself regardingyour comfort level in being around people who may be verydifferent from you or from anyone you’ve known before. Do you feel comfortable being around elderly people, orare you more at home with young children? How aboutpeople who are mentally or physically disabled, or emo-tionally disturbed? Would you feel comfortable workingwith prisoners, or with terminally ill people in hospicecare? If you’re thinking of volunteering with an animal youalready own, keep in mind that your dog or cat may be hap-pier in some places than in others, just like you. It’s a goodidea to try out a variety of animal therapy experiences tosee what level of commitment and what types of programswork best for you and your animal.
As you might expect, dolphin-assisted therapy is quiteexpensive. The care, feeding, and training of creatures aslarge and complex as the dolphin require special facilitiesand skilled caretakers. Besides that, some people believethat using dolphins in this way exploits them, and there aresome indications that captive dolphins do suffer from arange of stress-induced physical and mental symptoms. That’s why some scientists are hard at work creating a“virtual dolphin experience,” which they hope will capturethe joy and freedom of swimming with the animals usingvideo and computer technologies, eliminating any need forreal, live dolphins. David Cole, a computer scientist livingin the Los Angeles area, heads a group of computer wiz-ards, doctors, and naturalists called the AquaThoughtFoundation. He is one of several people currently workingto develop computer-simulated dolphin experiences. Cole’sprototype, called Cyberfin, is already up and running. It isa “virtual reality interaction” that simulates swimming withdolphins. Once it’s perfected, Cole believes the system willbe a boon both to humans who can’t afford a live dolphinswim and to the wild dolphins that will be spared a life ofcaptivity for the purposes of human therapy and recreation.
Health benefits from dolphin-assisted therapy are sup-ported by measurements of brain wave patterns, bloodchemistry, brain scans, and cell analysis of patients. Butways to explain these improvements are still being studied.Explanations range from the idea that swimming with dol-phins somehow stimulates the immune system to promotehealing, to the more romantic notion that patients whointeract with dolphins experience such joy that theybecome more “open” to recovery. Some people believe that dolphins are uniquely sensi-tive to the needs of people with disabilities, and seek tohelp them through playful expressions of concern. Thereis a “secret language,” they say, shared by dolphins andpeople with disabilities. Perhaps dolphins communicateboth with sound and with a variety of movements, and areextra-sensitive to the body cues of people who have diffi-culty communicating with others through speech, such asthose with autism or developmental delays.Some say it’s almost as if the dolphins can understand thethoughts and actions of people who are unable to putthese things into words.