Don Osborne CdeP 1976 and Laura Van Winkle James CdeP 1993 interview Denise Daniel Morland CdeP 1993.
Toad to Toad is a series of interviews conducted by alumni about alumni who represent a vast cross section of the alumni community and who demonstrate synergy with the Thacher values through their profession, pursuits, hobbies, or life adventures.
When George Pfau CdeP 1942 asked his classmate George Beckwith to endow a gymkhana trophy in perpetuity, he didn’t realize he had created a multi-generational connection to Thacher. Fifty years later, Beckwith’s grand-niece Denise Daniel Morland CdeP 1993 would attend Thacher, bringing a horse she affectionately called Buckethead and working to train him. Although her love of horses remains strong, Denise is now passionately involved in the world of competitive dog training, specifically in the field of scent detection and nose work. During her time at Thacher, Denise also became interested in chemistry. She now builds and fixes chemical instruments in her role as Technical Service Specialist for Suez Water Technologies.
Don Osborne CdeP 1976 and Laura Van Winkle James CdeP 1993 interviewed Denise recently to learn about her Thacher years, her deep passion for training dogs, and how both these experiences have influenced the person she is today. If you have ever been interested in learning how to teach a dog to do scent detection work, this interview is a must read!
Don Osborne: How did you and your parents discover Thacher?
Denise Daniel Morland: My family has always had a strong connection to Thacher. My great-uncle George Beckwith attended, and both uncles on my mom’s side (John Case CdeP 1959 and Stephen Case CdeP 1961) went to Thacher. My mom went to the Ojai Valley School, but only because Thacher was not co-ed yet.
My grandmother Helen Shelley (George Beckwith’s sister) recommended Thacher to me and a few of my cousins. It was an obvious fit because of my love of horses from an early age.
Don: What activities were most important to you at Thacher?
Denise: Definitely the Horse Program—I started riding when I was 3 years old, and I was crazy about the Horse Program from the very beginning. I had some interesting experiences about understanding leadership there.
When I started at Thacher, the Camper Certification Program had lapsed. There were a lot of alumni who wanted to see that program come back. When Paul Thomas came in to run the Camping Program, he encouraged some students to go through A camper certification. I did that along with five or six people from my class and the class below us. After I got A camper status, I went on three or four trips that were just students. We loved it and had a great time. We would get trucked into the Santa Ynez Valley where we got to go camping with just four or five students, and I have many special memories from that.
Laura Van Winkle James: You brought a horse to Thacher and were always working to train him. I think you sometimes affectionately called him Buckethead. What did you learn from that experience?
Denise: The horse I had at Thacher I got by chance from some friends of my mom. I brought this Arabian back to Thacher, but he wasn’t good at gymkhana. He didn’t have that sprinting speed or cutting that the quarter-horses had. Basically, the horse I had wasn’t very good at the sport that I was doing, and I had to find other things that he was good at. Often times people will buy an animal that they want to compete in a discipline and the animal doesn’t always agree…right? They have a personality too. So, I learned through that horse that the animal will not always be good at the sport that you do with them.
Don: I understand you’ve been training your dogs for competition. Tell us how you got into this field.
Denise: I’ve always had animals in my life. Dogs are easier to keep right now than horses, and I had friends with Australian shepherds, so I got hooked into the breed. I got my first Aussie (Sam) through a rescue program, and with him got motivated to run a lot to wear him out. Eventually, I ran a marathon because of that dog.
My second dog, Saffron, came out of the Boulder Humane Society. He was a stray about a year old who was discovered in the mountains. I thought he would be a good starter dog for competing with—trainable but not beyond my level. Turns out he was way beyond my level. A lot of what I do with dogs like Saffron comes from trying to give him a job. When I got him, I was specifically looking for a dog that I could compete with in agility. Agility is a lot harder for the handler than it looks. I found directing him around the course correctly at the speed he was determined to go was very difficult. If I made a mistake, he would come off the course barking and jumping on me and telling me off. It got stressful. That’s when I found nose work—it’s basically scent detection that is done for fun, very similar to training drug detection dogs. Works much better for us. He can’t look to me for instructions because I can’t smell the stuff. I don't know where it is.
Three years after Saffron, I got a puppy named Rooster, who has the opposite personality. Rooster is timid, with not a lot of self-confidence, but he’s a sweet snuggly dog. Nose work really has built his confidence. Working with these high-drive dogs has become part of my purpose in life.
Laura: Tell us about the transition from agility training to nose work.
Denise: It’s been a really interesting experience and journey for me to stumble upon nose work. My agility instructor at the Boulder Humane Society recommended that I try the classes. I was looking for something to do in the winter when I could not be outside doing agility and wearing him out. I started taking classes and I realized, “Oh, I can do this in the house at home.” And Saffron was so good at it and he loved it so much that I started competing. He’s just amazing in competition.
The story of nose work as a sport is interesting. There was a woman in California, Jill Marie O’Brien, who was working in an animal shelter. At the same time, she was training her own dog to do professional scent detection. She started to notice that doing that kind of training with her dog was helping correct a lot of behavioral problems. She started playing scent detection with the shelter dogs and discovered it also corrected behavioral problems there. That happened for a couple of reasons. When a dog is using the part of their brain that they use for scent detection, it disconnects that anxiety, aggression, and hyperactive part of their brain. They can’t engage in both activities at the same time. As a result, nose work really helps dogs that are anxious, hyper or aggressive. Jill Marie O’Brien started teaching nose work to groups of people in L.A. who did agility training. This led to that group wanting a way to compete in nose work. That’s how nose work competitions started. It’s only been a sport for 10-12 years.
Laura: How does a dog learn to do nose work?
Denise: Basically, we use a Q-tip with essential oil on it. In the organization that I compete through, we search for clove, anise, and birch. On the first level, you have one odor and one hide per search. And it’s hidden someplace where neither the trainer nor the dog can see it. Even when your dog finds it, you cannot see it. You have to call “alert” (that’s what you say) when you think your dog has found it. They add an odor every time you go up a level. Teaching your dog to find odor and add odors is simple. You start by hiding food and letting your dog find it.
Dogs that are food-motivated are especially good at nose work. You start with a cardboard box, put food in it, and put the box in front of your dog. Then you let your dog go in the box and get the food. You do that a couple of times. Next you get three or four cardboard boxes and, while your dog is out of the room, you put food in only one of the boxes, then let your dog find the food. Very quickly the dogs learn the game — “Ok, there’s boxes and one of the boxes has food in it.” You can see them switch from using their eyes to using their nose to find the odor, because it’s faster to use their nose. When you put boxes out, the boxes become a visual cue to the dog that it’s time to play the game. Eventually, you start to hide the food in other places. So, you have the boxes out but maybe the food is hidden in the same room but not in a box.
Laura: Is there a particular treat that is good to use, like peanut butter? How do you transition from using food to using essential oil scents?
Denise: It is good to use a treat-food, especially in the beginning, because you want to create a lot of excitement and motivation. Peanut butter actually doesn’t work great because it’s hard for them to get all of it, which means you end up with peanut butter residue on everything. Individual treat pieces like hot dog, cheese, or chicken work better. Whatever the dog really likes. People use lots of different things.
After you’ve built a lot of motivation and excitement and confidence in the dog and they understand what the game is, you take a Q-tip with essential oil on it. First you hide the birch Q-tip with the food. Every time they find the food, they are smelling the birch oil. Eventually you can take the food away. When the dog finds the oil, they will look to you as if to say, “Hey, I found the oil, where’s the food? Where’s my treat?” If there’s no food with the oil, you come in and give lots of big rewards. You reinforce the thought process of, “Here’s the odor. Where’s my reward?” The expectation of a reward is how you can tell in a competition when your dog has found the odor.
You can tell when the dog has gotten to the source based on their body language. Nose work training was a big switch for me and Saffron as a team. In agility training, I was in charge and Saffron was trying to pay a lot of attention to my body language as I directed him around the course. In nose work, he’s in charge and I’m trying to read his body language and find out what he’s telling me about what he’s smelling.
And it turned out nose work training worked better for us. With nose work, he’s in charge and I’m just trying to read him and figure out what he’s doing. It’s a different “dog/human” relationship where the dog is in charge. That’s one of the things that trainers struggle with in the beginning when the dogs can’t find something. The dog will look to the trainer for help because they are used to looking to their trainer for instruction. The trainer has to teach the dog to be more independent and to solve the problem on their own.
Laura: And you are learning something about yourself too.
Denise: Absolutely. When I started agility, I was in the process of learning that being a perfectionist is not a path to happiness for me. It’s something that’s in my DNA and my natural tendency is to try to be a perfectionist. The answer to agility was not take five classes a week and spend $1,000 per month on agility until I’m the best agility handler out there. There are lots of times in my life when that’s what I would have done. I had to learn that perhaps the best course of action was stepping back from that environment even though I had a dog that was really talented and could take me to nationals. Maybe that wasn’t the right path for either one of us, because if I wasn’t going to be happy doing it then he wasn’t going to be happy either.
Don: Switching back to your time at Thacher, what people/programs made the biggest impression on you when you?
Denise: Mr. Mulligan made a big impression. Their family in general had a big impact on me. Joy was my advisor; they adopted Annie sometime during my freshman year, and I babysat for Annie a lot of my junior and senior year. They were my family away from home. I was there was when they started doing open house on Friday nights. I always went to those, and we had a lot of fun, and at the same time there were family experiences, watching Disney movies, playing Pictionary®, baking brownies and cookies. Joy and Michael were always in the middle of all that. Joy taught us how to make her special brownie recipe, while someone was putting Annie to bed. To get to know your headmaster on that level is a unique experience. Those relationships in general were about teaching me that there’s a lot of different sides to people.
Don: Turning to the work you do now, you work as a chemist. What is your role?
Denise: I specialize in instrumentation. The company I work for builds instruments that measure water quality, but I’m also passionate about food. I’ve just gone back to get my master’s degree in food science through Kansas State.
Laura: Were your interests in water quality and food influenced by Thacher? If so, in what way?
Denise: I think my progression at Thacher has a lot to do with why I like Chemistry. I took biology freshman year and it was really hard. But I studied hard for it and did well in the class. The next year, I had to take advanced physics with Mr. Harris. For me, it was like another language that I never could understand. It was beyond hard. My junior year I chose Chemistry and the Community with Heather Palombo. It was kind of a relief, a science that made send to me. I was like, “Oh, I can do this.” I was allowed to take a basic chemistry class and I really enjoyed it. My senior year, Mr. Reel made chemistry fun. He was so goofy that it didn’t feel like such a serious, hard subject. He definitely taught us—I did really well on the AP exam—but at the same time he didn’t take it too seriously. To him, chemistry was about having fun. That made it easier for me to learn and be open to chemistry. It did not feel like a struggle to learn it.
Don: Would you share something about your Thacher experience that you discovered was substantially different from the experience of others?
Denise: My view of the world comes from Thacher and my family. It’s especially hard to separate the two, because my family is so wrapped up in Thacher. We had those same sort of values, really valuing the outdoors and the kinds of experiences you can have there and taking care of the environment. My whole family is involved in the outdoors, and Thacher was an extension of that.
As a student, I was very involved with the volunteer program at Thacher; we worked closely with Mr. Robinson and the senior daycare facility in Ojai (now known as The Gables). I got into volunteering there, and I quickly discovered that I got way more out of that then I put into it. It was like having 15 grandparents that I could go to once or twice a week and hang out with. I could do no wrong. I would read my English papers to them, and they all thought that I was the smartest person. I learned that giving to other people and taking care of the people around you is part of taking care of yourself, and building that rich community is important.
Don: Picture yourself on the Thacher campus. Where are you?
Denise: The barns in general. That’s always where you would find me, sitting in the horse’s stall doing my homework. I was so horse crazy while I was at Thacher that that’s who I was.
Funny story—I came back to Thacher for my class’s 10th reunion. The Schryvers were there, and Lori gave me a really nice horse to ride. I rode around a bit on the Gymkhana Field, then haltered him and rode him bareback to watch the Alumni - Senior lacrosse game, and all of my classmates were like, “There you are! Now we recognize you!” That was fun.