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Dolphin-Powered Innovation: Advancing Animal-Assisted Therapy in Lithuania

Dolphin-Powered Innovation: Advancing Animal-Assisted Therapy in Lithuania

The Dolphin Therapy Centre of the Lithuanian Sea Museum, together with the Kurtuvėnai Regional Park Directorate, has been implementing an innovative animal therapy project from 2018 to 2023. The project has developed a research-based methodology and a holistic medical health concept using animal therapy. The project researched and developed a model of human mental health well-being, which is being developed with the involvement of an animal: a dog, a horse, or a dolphin. Using approved methodologies, with descriptions and regulations drawn up by specialists, psychosocial work with animals can be carried out safely and integrated into the concept of holistic medicine.

Unveiling a new paradigm in mental health

“Our studies involved children with autism spectrum disorders, cerebral palsy and adults with multiple sclerosis and organic depression,” says Prof. Brigita Kreivinienė, Head of the Dolphin Therapy Department at the Lithuanian Sea Museum.

“Although animal-assisted therapies have been used around the world for many years, their methodologies often vary widely and not all of them are suitable for Lithuania. We developed our animal-assisted therapy methodology at the same time as political and regulatory changes were taking place in Lithuania,” says Professor. Kreivinienė emphasises that the findings of the project will undoubtedly form the basis for further research, and that the new methodology developed is closely linked to the regulatory process for animal assisted therapy and animal welfare in Lithuania: “Therefore, the research conducted and the methodologies developed are not just a theoretical product, but will be able to be applied in practice. Our task was to ensure that the client receives a service that responds to his or her sensitive needs, and the methodology developed will do just that”.

Funding of the project

The Ministry of Economy and Innovation has allocated EUR 769,000 from the EU Structural Funds programme under the measure Pre-commercial Procurement LT for the implementation of the project idea of the Animal Assisted Therapy Methodology and Animal Welfare. The total value of the project was EUR 895 000.

A special focus on animal well-being

The animals involved in the therapy were not forgotten. During the project, sessions with dolphins were filmed and their well-being was investigated by analysing their physiology and behavioural changes during therapy. “After evaluating the data collected, we concluded that the therapy sessions were not stressful for the dolphins. Only clinically healthy animals over three years of age, who had completed all tasks during the assessment, participated in the therapy. Dolphins learn to be therapists from a young age by swimming alongside their mother, and the trainers are trained by experienced staff from the Sea Museum’s Animal Care Department. Training can take six months or more, and only people with a background in biology can become trainers,” says Kreivinienė.

 Inspiring work results

“The results of the study exceeded expectations in every subject group. People with organic depression and multiple sclerosis showed a significant improvement in their psychophysical condition, with reduced pain, better sleep, a greater willingness to engage in social life, improved concentration and, most importantly, increased positivity, willingness to seek opportunities and optimism,” she says. She points out that the physical condition of the people who participated in the animal therapy also improved significantly, with increased stamina, activity, balance, gait and coordination. Children with autism spectrum disorders and cerebral palsy showed significant improvements in all neurosensory domains – communication, self-expression, attention, gait, balance, social participation and expressive language. Children’s emotional instability, general emotional tension, sensory irritability, muscle tone and perception of safety were also reduced.

Anticipating project commercialization: a promising future ahead

The Lithuanian Sea Museum project was implemented within the framework of the call Pre-commercial Procurement LT published by the Innovation Agency. According to Agnė Vaitkūnienė, Director of the Innovation Agency’s Department of Investment Management, the utilization of the Pre-commercial Procurement LT instrument has propelled the Sea Museum’s animal therapy project to a remarkable stage. The initiative has successfully led to the near-final development of the methodics, along with comprehensive testing and validation conducted under controlled conditions.

Vaitkūnienė acknowledges that while the product might not be fully prepared for commercialization at present, the avenue for refinement and thorough market preparation remains open. This is set to materialize through the forthcoming Innovative Procurement service, currently under development by the Innovation Agency.

The Sea Museum’s journey, fueled by innovative procurement methods, underscores its commitment to nurturing cutting-edge solutions that stand to enhance the landscape of animal-assisted therapies and well-being interventions.