Helping Animals Help People

Hannah Erickson at Island Dolphin CareAnimal-assisted therapy has interested Hannah Erickson ’12, Fargo, N.D., for a long time.

It started when she watched a documentary about dolphins and children with autism several years ago. Then she volunteered at a therapeutic horseback-riding program. So when Erickson started thinking about the internship she needed to finish her exercise science degree, she Googled “dolphin-assisted therapy” to see what her options were.

The first result, Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo, Fla., had an internship tab. The site explained some of the opportunities that the interns would have. Erickson admits that after finding the program, she was so excited that she didn’t sleep much that night and went to visit her advisor first thing the next morning. Before long, she was accepted and preparing to spend eight weeks in Florida.

Island Dolphin Care offers programs for children and adults with special needs and a program for wounded veterans. The most popular program lasts for five days and clients come from all over the world. Each program involves daily dry sessions (in a classroom or art area) and water sessions. During her internship, Erickson worked side-by-side with a therapist in the classroom and with a trainer for the water session, handing toys to the dolphin and assisting with other tasks.

Hannah Erickson with picture communication cardsPicture this: a client who has trouble communicating comes from Germany to Island Dolphin Care. He climbs into the water with a therapist and a dolphin. He wants the dolphin to bring him a floating toy duck. When he succeeds at communicating this desire, he’s rewarded by the dolphin fulfilling his request, and then everybody (dolphin included) sings a song in German about ducks. Watch a video of Erickson singing the song.

The timing for the internship was tricky – she had to start in October, but still wanted to graduate in December.

“The faculty here have been unbelievable,” she says, explaining how they worked with her to fit all her required classes around the internship. “Without their flexibility, I wouldn’t have been able to have this opportunity.”

Erickson’s favorite memory of the experience is simply watching a person grow and improve throughout the program. Erickson, who is active in the National Guard, made a personal connection with one client who came for the veteran program. The improvements that he made throughout his time were incredible, she says. Watch a video of Erickson describing this client’s experience.

“You can see the difference between a Monday when they get there and a Friday when they leave,” she says. “It’s really motivating that there’s a dolphin involved because it makes them really want to try hard.”