Find Your Passion: Finding Hope with Man’s Best Friend

By Kristi Payne

Catherine PostellPostell in front of UA’s Little Hall with her yellow Labrador Retriever, Bella. (Samantha Hernandez)

As Catherine Postell raced to the Tuscaloosa K9 Camp immediately following the 2011 tornado, The University of Alabama social work student steeled herself for the worst.

Unfortunately, she found exactly that. The dog boarding, training and rescue facility, with which she had been actively involved, was destroyed, and many of its canine inhabitants were trapped and wounded.

She immediately began transporting injured dogs to available veterinarians she could locate. She often returned with car loads of displaced animals from local communities in order to house and care for them as they awaited reunion with their owners.

The UA senior then acted as the community organizer for the camp's rebuilding efforts -- a role that had her on-site daily for more than three months. She recruited and transported volunteers, served as the camp's veterinary liaison, and collected donations of food, water and supplies for both people and animals alike.

Catherine Postell
A student in UA’s School of Social Work, Postell has documented ways service animals can help people with mental and emotional disorders. (Samantha Hernandez)

She also aggressively solicited media attention for the plight of the K9 camp, eventually garnering national coverage from the Animal Planet program "Pit Bulls and Parolees." The cast and crew arrived on-site to help with the rebuilding efforts and to film an episode that aired in January. Postell says she hopes the television feature will draw additional donations for the camp's rescue division.

In her time volunteering at the K9 camp prior to the storm, Postell says she developed a fascination with the training of service animals -- specifically those assisting people with non-physical disabilities, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or severe anxiety attacks.

She says she felt compelled to explore how this could relate to her goals as a future social worker. So, she and two classmates -- DeWayne Hamilton and Sarah Warner -- began an undergraduate project focused on the nontraditional use of service animals.

Postell says she could fathom no better way to combine her two passions in life -- helping dogs and helping people -- than by documenting various ways service animals can help people with mental and emotional disorders.

There are advantages, Postell says, to the potential alternative of involving animals as a treatment option to certain medications for these disorders.

Catherine Postell
The unconditional acceptance provided by pets can, Postell says, restore in people the ability to trust. As an intern, the UA student introduced a pet therapy program into a program helping troubled adolescents. (Samantha Hernandez)

"These drugs often have undesirable negative side effects that prompt the use of numerous other drugs to counteract them. Many people are happy to learn that the use of service animals can reduce or eliminate the need for those medications," she says.

She relays one example of a service dog trained by the K9 camp to assist a woman suffering from debilitating panic attacks. The dog, upon detecting a marked rise in her anxiety level, would speed-dial her husband and bark into the phone to alert him that she needed help.

Postell says she has seen how owning pets can facilitate social immersion for those living with emotional disorders. They can act as conversation-starters, she says, for people who live with extreme shyness and provide them with an excuse to end social contact if they feel uncomfortable or overly pressured in a social situation.

For her, the decision to attend UA as a social work student was easy.

"I always felt that my strength and my calling lay in doing social work," she says. "UA is one of very few schools in the Southeast to offer both a bachelor's and master's degree in social work, and the quality of their programs is unmatched," says the Hueytown native, who intends to obtain her Master of Social Work from UA following her May graduation.

Catherine Postell
Tornado damage at the Tuscaloosa K9 Camp.

Catherine Postell
Tornado victim “Fuzzy” rests as Postell prepares to transport her to a local veterinarian. The UA student says Fuzzy’s injuries required amputation of her damaged leg, but reports she has adapted well and appears to be enjoying a “full and healthy life.”

In addition to her full-time studies, Postell works nine hours per day as a student intern at The Bridge, where she provides tutoring, GED instruction, and counseling services to troubled adolescents who would otherwise be committed to youth services or detained in juvenile detention centers.

It's quite a workload, but Postell says she wouldn't change a thing.

"I never wake up and dread going to work. This is what I live to do," she says.

She has even begun incorporating a type of pet therapy into her work at The Bridge, by arranging for the youth to spend time working with abused or rescued animals. Time and again, she has seen them, she says, form special bonds that are mutually beneficial to animal and child.

She says that juveniles with troubled histories can relate to the stigma of being a "stray" because they employ very similar emotional survival and defense mechanisms. The interaction between them creates the beginning of solid socialization skills for both, she says.

The animals, she says, offer them someone they can talk to who never interrupts or passes judgment, loves them without reservation, and is exuberantly happy to see them regardless of circumstances that may have caused others to look down on them.

The unconditional acceptance they receive from their animal partners begins restoring their ability to trust – a crucial step, she says, to making them feel comfortable opening up to counselors and others trying to help.

Postell, who shares her home with a yellow Lab, "Bella," and "Copper," a red Dachshund, says that the phenomenon is hardly surprising.

"Dogs are called 'man's best friend' for good reason."

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Kristi Payne is a junior from Pinson majoring in interdisciplinary studies with New College Life Track. She has served as a student writer for UA Media Relations since Fall 2011.

This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.