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Tessa Philippaerts | Canicross: Best tips when running with a dog

If you like to be active with your dog, canicross is the perfect sport for you! Everyone can do it - both proven runners and people who have never participated in competitions before. In this episode, Multiple World Champion Tessa Philippaerts from Belgium shares her tips on everything from how to get started to what to remember at a competition.

JEANETTE: Today’s guest was a Top 5 track and field athlete in Belgium. Now canicross is her main discipline, and today the three-time world champion will share some tips and tricks. Tessa Philippaerts from Belgium, welcome.

TESSA: Hi. Welcome.

JEANETTE: Thank you. First of all, can you tell us a bit what is canicross?

TESSA: Canicross is basically running with your dog, but you’re connected to your dog. The dog is not free-running, and the dog is wearing a special type of harness in which he can pull freely, and he’s connected to the runner by this elastic line. The runner is wearing a special type of belt. Usually they run basically anywhere they want. They can go off-road, they can run a little bit on the road.

JEANETTE: So it doesn’t need too much equipment. This is basically something everyone can do.

TESSA: Yeah, everybody can do canicross. It’s really easy. You just need basic equipment and a pair of running shoes, and then you’re good to go.

JEANETTE: How did you come into the sport?

TESSA: I was doing track and field from when I was 7 years old, I think, and I always hated to do the long distance running training that I had to do by myself. I really liked dogs, but after our last dog died, my father said, “No, we do not really want to have a new dog anymore. It’s so much time.” So I kept on nagging and nagging and nagging to get a new dog. My father saw I was struggling with my training and he said, “Yeah, maybe if I can buy you a new dog that can join you on your training runs, will you then go and do it more often?” I was like, “Yeah, of course. Of course I would love to have a dog to join me on my runs.”

We basically started to look online for which type of dog fit in with our lifestyle, and we stumbled on the whippet, because they’re pretty calm in the house and they’re active whenever they’re outside. They’re not the typical canicross dog, but by then I didn’t know anything about canicross, so it was okay.

After a while my father said he was looking on the internet, surfing, and he found this sport where you can run with your dog. He was like, “That’s something for you, canicross. Would you like to try it?” I said, “Yeah, we can go one day and try it.” So one race somewhere in Belgium –There we started. There was this small stand standing outside where they have all this equipment hanging and you could try it out, or you can buy it. We just bought instantly everything because I thought it was nice for running at home anyway.

Then we did the race, and I thought it was so much fun – even though my dog didn’t get anything about what she had to do. But yeah, it was so much fun to run with my dog. I remember I finished last place, but I didn’t care because it was so much fun. After that day, I think we went to every possible race. Then we got really stuck with canicross, and we got better and better during the years, so that was really cool.

JEANETTE: You also got more dogs.

TESSA: Yeah, because I think after two years of doing canicross, my father said “This is actually so much fun. Can I borrow your dog?” Of course, “No.”

Then he was like, “Okay, then maybe we can buy another dog.” So we bought a second whippet. Then he started to race as well with her.

From then on, we started to get more dogs after my whippet got injured when she was 4 years old. I was so sad. I remember I was just so sad, because she was actually really good for a whippet running in canicross. She had an injury on her shoulder which was not related to what we were doing. We always threw this ball and a stick, and they run like 60 kilometers an hour and break it once. So she had this arthritis already in her shoulder.

I was borrowing for a couple of years some dogs, until I stumbled on a border collie. It was a girl, and she said on Facebook, “Yeah, you can borrow my dog.” It was so much fun because the dog and me, we were such a great team. That girl is called Femke. She is my best friend since then, and we are still best friends from that day.

But then after a while, her father got sick, so she couldn’t come to the races anymore. It was a little bit back and forth and borrowing some other dogs, but it was not the same as running with her dog or running with my own dogs, so we started to think about getting a new dog. Then eventually we stumbled on this crossbreed sled dog, and his name was Yukon. It was a guy in France who didn’t want him anymore. He basically said, “You can have him.” I bought him when he was almost one year old. He was just the best ever. He was a natural talent.

Only 3 months after we got him, there was a world championship in Bergen, which is only 3 hours from our place where we live. So my father entered me there, and apparently we did really good because we ended up first in the junior category. I think we also ran faster the second day than the senior women, so that was really awesome. Now we are growing with the sport. My first dog got old, so now we have three other dogs at the moment, so four in total.

JEANETTE: Together with your dogs you’ve had some great achievements. Can you tell us a bit about what you’ve done throughout the years?

TESSA: Like we said before, in Bergen was my first time I did a world championship, and we ended up first in junior class. Then the world championship is alternating with the European championship, every other year. Two years after it was another world championship, and I was in the senior category, and we won again. Then two years later, we won for a third time.

In between, the European championships, I’m very happy to have finished as a Vice European Champion a couple of times. Belgium also, we won a couple of times the Belgium championship, and also in bike, biking with your dog. There I also won a couple of times the Belgian championship. Sometimes I did double entry on the big championships with the same dog, and we ended up – I think also two times on the world championship – Top 6, I think, with him in bike. That was not too bad either. I think that’s kind of it

JEANETTE: How does it feel to win the world championship with your best friend?

TESSA: It’s a crazy feeling. I don’t think you can really describe it. You know you’ve worked really hard for it, and if everything falls in place that day and works out, it is like this huge emotional rollercoaster.

JEANETTE: Can you tell us a bit more about how you are training to become good in canicross?

TESSA: I actually think before I was a little bit lucky because I had this background of track and field. I think many people that were in this race were not track and field runners. It was just people that basically go and run with their dog and they do only that. So I had a little bit of knowledge of how to train before.

I think I didn’t train that much before because the competition was, in my eyes, not super high. But now, the sport is growing every year, and now I see that with basic training, I will not get there anymore. Now I’m specializing myself a little bit more.

JEANETTE: Do you always run with your dog, or do you train your dog separately and yourself separately?

TESSA: Yeah, that’s a big thing. I have pretty big dogs. It’s actually easier to train without your dog. I train my dogs separately with the bike or the scooter. Every now and then I do run with them, because I really like to run with them, but it would not physically be possible to run with a 33- or 35-kilo dog, and I weigh myself around 52. It’s not that healthy for the joints and everything to do with such a big dog on a daily basis.

I have one smaller female, around 19 kilograms. If I go training, usually I use her to train with because she’s a really nice size.

JEANETTE: Do you do running, or do you do other things as well?

TESSA: Like I said, when I train my dogs, it’s usually with the bike or the scooter, and then it depends a little bit on the weather. They also go in summer, a lot of free running whenever it’s possible, or swimming is also a very good alternative. Myself, like I said, I like running a lot. But I do also like biking, and sometimes I also like running without the dogs and going in really high kilometer amounts in one week. Then I sometimes also go biking, mountain biking, or go with my road bike, just to have some alternative training. I think running is hard for the body, but you can do lots of stuff.

JEANETTE: Can everybody do canicross? Older people, people that didn’t run before, is it possible for everybody to do this?

TESSA: Yes, I think so. I think as long as you respect your own limits and the limits of the type of dog you have – if you do not want to get dragged like me, you can buy a smaller dog that’s not so powerful, and you can basically train with him every day. That’s not a problem. You just have to see, if you’re older, you just have to take it slow and build it up, basically like you do with normal running as well.

And the same for your dog. He also has to build up stamina and endurance. Small dogs can do it, big dogs can do it. You just have to respect the type of dog you have. You cannot ask from a French bulldog to do the same as a German short-haired pointer. If you respect that, then everybody can do canicross.

JEANETTE: Are there specific breeds that stand out?

TESSA: Those mixed breeds, and I think a lot of pointers are also very popular. When I started in canicross, I think border collies were very popular because they’re very smart, and they are very hard workers also. But they are now considered small dogs in this sport, so I think the dogs they use the most are the pure GSP, English pointer, and also some huskies I think. Also some Belgian Malinois. They’re also popular. And then our mixed breed dog types that we have. They are very popular at the moment.

JEANETTE: What makes a good canicross dog? What kind of mindset do they need to have, and how do you see that a dog is really good in the sport?

TESSA: I think it all depends on the head. You can have a dog that has the best body and the best build, but if he doesn’t have the right head or the right mindset, then you will achieve nothing. My whippet, for example, she was very good in the head. She would pull basically like three-fourths of the race. For a whippet I think that’s really good because it’s a dog that usually chases other things in the field.

The dog doesn’t only have to be able to run good; he also has to be smart, because you have to steer your dog. You have to say left and right. They are very self-secure, the dogs. They usually are very good when you’re giving commands. Some dogs are very insecure and then it’s a little bit more difficult because they will hesitate during the race or something.

It’s also very good to have a nice dog, a dog that’s very well-socialized with other dogs, before you go racing. Of course, we do not want any dogs biting when they’re overtaking people on the track or biting other people. That has also happened before.

It’s also a very good thing that the dog has a hard head – even though he gets tired and uphill, he keeps on pushing a little bit further. That’s basically what you need for having a good canicross dog.

JEANETTE: If you have a dog that’s a bit careful, maybe doesn’t pull too much or is a bit careful, are there any tips or tricks to motivate them a bit more?

TESSA: Yeah, there’s always some tricks to motivate dogs to go do a little extra during a race or something. I usually use food or some toys that they really like. They only get this during training, for example, so it’s this really special thing that they only get when they go running. I basically give them a goal that they are running for.

For some of my dogs it’s a treat. For others it’s a tennis ball. I start with really short distances and make it really fun. Try to do maybe some interval training with them so that they do not always have to go all the way and always feel really tired. I keep them motivated with these shorter training runs, and treats and toys. They usually work.

JEANETTE: When do you start training your dogs? Do you start at puppy age?

TESSA: I don’t like to call it training my dogs at puppy age, but I call it more like educating them. I’m basically teaching them what they have to do without really doing it. For example, I teach them to, from the start – not from the start, but maybe 3 months, I start to walk them in harness. When they are walking in the harness, they are allowed to pull. When they’re attached to the collar and just go walk like that, then they are not allowed to pull.

INTERVIEWER: That’s nice to teach the difference. Otherwise you will just hang in there all the time.

TESSA: Yes. It’s some really basic training for them. It makes afterwards the whole process a lot easier. I also teach them, for example, at the race that they are standing in line out, they are stretching the line, standing still, not barking. They are concentrated until I do the countdown. This I also start a really young age, just to learn that they have to stand still, stretch the line. I also work always with treats and toys or whatever. They think it’s really fun to do these exercises. Then I do the countdown, and then I run for 10 meters so that they know, “oh, okay, this is how it’s supposed to be.”

I teach them already the commands. When I go walking, I already teach them left and right. I start doing this really early, and it’s so cool because they are so smart. When they’re young, they are so easy to teach this kind of stuff, and it makes them also more self-confident when they get to the part where they are almost one year old and can start really training, or training a little bit more.

It’s easy to have a dog that already knows everything before he actually has to do it.

JEANETTE: With the commands, is it only left and right, or do you have any other commands as well?

TESSA: Yeah, like the line out at the start. I use left, right, straight ahead. Some people don’t say anything when they go straight ahead, but I use it because we have so many difficult trails, just to make sure also that they are running the right way. They also know how to slow down. It doesn’t always work, but they know it in training. In racing it’s a little bit different because of all the excitement. But they also know how to slow down. They also know the word “stop.” Also, for example, when I fall down, I let them do line out again and start, stuff like that.

JEANETTE: The “stop” and “slow down” is nice to have downhill because a canicross trail is not only straight. It can be uphill and downhill as well.

TESSA: Yeah, that’s true. That’s the reason why I teach them this, because the trails that we use, for example, in Belgium, are very much single track with stones and tree roots going down. So it’s very good to be able to control the dog in a downhill, and slowing down is a very good one to teach them.

JEANETTE: If you have a dog that’s a bit reactive to other dogs – you’re talking about dogs that are passing each other and that kind of stuff – how can you handle it if your dog is a bit reactive?

TESSA: I think first we can try to fix it in training with other people and with dogs that he knows and maybe trusts. You can try to use a muzzle in the beginning in training if you really do not trust him. But I think it’s very important that he has positive experiences. Maybe the dog got bitten before and doesn’t trust any other dogs anymore.

But it’s usually easier to try to fix it in training than to do it in a race, because if you have a reactive dog in a race, there is so much more stress, and you probably want to go as fast as you want, and you’re probably not paying attention as much as you should.

But what you can do in a race if you have a reactive dog is when people are passing, you have these words you have to say, obligated. In some countries, they use the word “trail.” So they yell “trail!” and then you know there’s somebody coming. Then you already can take your dog short with you. I always make sure that the dog is the furthest away from the other person that is passing. You can hold him really tight.

Also, when you have to overtake somebody with a reactive dog, you can also say “trail!” way in advance, and while you’re running, you can also take your dog short next to you, overtake the person, and then let them go again. It’s something you can always do. It’s easier to try to fix the problem before in training and then go racing than to do the opposite way.

JEANETTE: The starting area can be a challenge as well, I guess, with a reactive dog, because it’s a lot of dogs and a lot of people in a small space. How do you solve that?

TESSA: It depends. In Belgium we have I think only maybe two or three times a year a mass start race. All the other races are held with single starts, where you’re starting every 30 seconds. Then it’s very much easier to control the dogs at the start. But when you have these mass starts and you have a reactive dog, just go behind everybody. You can wait a few seconds until everybody has gone and then start behind. Then it’s much easier to steer the dog or to control the dog than in this massive pack of people and barking dogs that are standing there. I think that’s just the best thing to do if you really want to start in a mass start.

JEANETTE: How big are the competitions? How many people join?

TESSA: In Belgium it’s pretty big. I think we have around maybe even more than 20 races in a year. I guess around 120 to 350 people starting there every time. Some races are a little bit more popular than the others. In our own race last year, I think we had around 350 people starting. That’s huge.

JEANETTE: Do you have any favorite race, a race that you would really recommend people to go to?

TESSA: Yeah, the one from our own club is a lot of fun because it’s a lot of single trails, and the dogs usually really love it because it’s almost like they are hunting something. They just are so much more energetic when they run on these single trails and they cannot see where the next corner is going. They really love it. This trail is like that. It’s a little bit up and down and single tracks. It’s a really fun trail. It’s also completely in the forest, so it’s almost completely in the shadow. That’s a really fun one. That’s ours.

JEANETTE: When you go to a competition, how do you prepare the day before? Do you have any special routines?

TESSA: I usually don’t feed my dogs after 5:00-6:00 in the evening. I try to feed them a little bit earlier than usual. I also make sure even two days before that they drink a lot before the race. If your dog is not usually a good drinker, you can just put extra water in his dry food or meat when you’re feeding him. We also have these special products with electrolytes which you can use that are made specially for dogs, and they also help to hydrate your dog better before you start.

I feed them pretty early because the day before the race also, the only thing they get is a special product. The one which I give is from MAMUT. It’s called Pre-Run, and it has some electrolytes, some energy in there, everything he needs. It is also to avoid stomach turns for a dog. I usually water them 2 hours before training or racing with this product instead of feeding them.

The feeding early the day before, it is very good to do this because I notice that my dogs don’t take a shit at the trail anymore when you do that. [laughs] They actually run on an empty stomach.

Then right after the race, they get this recovery drink, which they really love. It’s a treat for them all in itself. It’s also to rehydrate the dog again, and to get some extra proteins. It’s like a protein shake for people, basically. Then within half an hour, one hour, I usually give them their first portion of their daily food, and then in the evening after they get home, they get the second portion.

JEANETTE: Is there anything special you have to bring? You have to remember the harness, your running belt, the line… anything else?

TESSA: Yes, you always need your dog’s passport. The dogs also need the right vaccines. In Belgium I think it’s all of the vaccines, basically. Rabies is obligated, also bordetella, influenza, leptospirosis, and kennel cough. People who don’t have these vaccines will not be allowed to start at the race because there’s too high a risk for so many dogs in such a small place to get sick or to make other dogs sick.

JEANETTE: How does a competition happen? When you arrive in the morning, what do you do? What happens? How is the routine?

TESSA: Usually I first go to the entry, because we can only enter on the spot. I think now it’s changing and they’re starting with this program, but usually you just enter on the spot.

Then right after, I go and check out the trail. I think it’s very important to see the trail before I go. With my previous dog I didn’t need to do this because he is totally crazy when it comes to a new place. He really loves it. But my other dogs get a little bit insecure if they do not know the trail, so I always take them and check out the trail before. Then on the race, they know a little bit of where they have to go, and then they are running much more confident than they would if I didn’t do this. So we check out the trail.

I warm them up a little bit. It depends on which type of dog you have. My oldest dog that retired now is totally crazy and he’s jumping for 5 minutes before the start. With him, I do not do a warmup because the start is a warmup for himself. The females, I usually take them jogging maybe 5 minutes before I need to go to the start, and I warm them up a little bit. That’s usually enough. It works for them.

After the race, I also never let them drink straight after. I also go walking with them a little bit, just to do some cool-down. When I get to the car, then they usually get their drink a little bit after, because if I give it right after the race, they’re breathing so heavily and they’re taking in so much water and so much air at the same time, that I had one time that my dog almost got his stomach turned from drinking too fast after a race. He just started to bloat all the way in the back. So I stopped doing that. Now I let them calm down a little bit, and then they get water and they also drink much more calmly and don’t gasp so much air at the same time.

JEANETTE: At competitions, do you ever get nervous?

TESSA: For normal races I do not really get nervous because I see – the whole year for me is basically training. The only time I get nervous is for a big championship. Then I’m stressed. [laughs]

JEANETTE: How do you handle it? And do your dogs know this?

TESSA: My oldest dog is very sensitive in that way. If I’m stressed, he’s stressed. But he’s stressed in that he starts to bark even more and then stresses me out even more, and I’m stressing him because I’m yelling at him. But the other two, the two females that I have are pretty calm. Maybe because they’re calm, I can stay calm myself also, better.

But I usually try to listen maybe to a little bit of music or something before the race, or I just stay a little bit longer in my car and listen to some music or go for a walk or jog by myself, just to clear the mind a little bit.

JEANETTE: How many competitions do you have throughout the year? Is it every weekend? When is the season, and how does the year look?

TESSA: In Belgium we usually race half beginning, half December. Then we have some small winter stop till the end of February, and then it starts again. Then we have a summer stop also from June till August. But in between I think we have so many races that there’s almost every weekend a race in between.

JEANETTE: Why do you have a break in summer? It’s a nice time.

TESSA: Yeah, it’s a nice time, but in Belgium the humidity is very high and the heat is also very bad, so it’s just to protect the dogs. They would run if we let them run, probably, but it’s not healthy for them.

JEANETTE: Can you tell us a bit about training in warm weather? How do you handle it?

TESSA: Like I said before, I always try to hydrate them before. I never go training if I didn’t manage to give them water before the training.

I usually keep it really short in summer and I do these interval trainings from maybe 1 kilometer. Three times, 1 kilometer, and then I always make sure I have a water stop somewhere, or just run 1 kilometer up to the water, 1 kilometer back, 1 kilometer back up to the water, with some small break in between. That usually helps. They have done something without really training super hard, and it’s also to keep them happier in summer. If they don’t do any pulling activities in summer, they are a little bit getting frustrated, almost, because they’re used to doing it as well.

But I also take them many times free running or just jogging with me on the leash. They can do that as well. When I attach them to the collar, they know that they are not allowed to pull, so then they are jogging.

Swimming is actually the thing we usually do the most in summer. They go swimming a lot, and we have this kayak and we go in the middle of the lake and let them swim.

JEANETTE: Do you have any special training plan you follow during the winter?

TESSA: I basically always see how the dogs are doing after summer. Some years they are in super shape after summer. Some years, because of the weather, maybe they didn’t do that much and then they need some more time in winter to get to the level that I want them to be. I basically always look at the dog, every training.

Some trainings, when I’m building up the distance – I always use this type of interval training to build it up, and if I see that they’re not able to do this training, I will go back down in distance or in speed or whatever I need to do to make it work. Then we just keep building up like that, because they’re pretty much the same as us. We go through ups and downs as well in our own training.

So I always look at the dog, how they are doing that day. If it’s too much, you can always stop in the middle of the training and let them free and just go easy back to the car. There’s no use in always pushing them to their limits, because first of all, they do not know how far you’re going to train, so they are just trusting you. You have to look a little bit at them and control them a little bit more.

JEANETTE: That’s important when you’re training for races as well, I guess, that you prepare the dog for the distance they are going to run.

TESSA: Yes, because I see sometimes people are training their dogs for maybe 3-4 kilometers, and then there’s this 6 kilometers race. If the dog is always used to running 3-4 kilometers, he knows the distance and the time they’re running, what they’re used to. If you go then on a race for 6 kilometers, he will run like he’s running for a 4, and in some cases that makes a huge difference, and they can just kill themselves, basically.

So I always try to prepare my dogs for the distance. Even the type of trail that we’re going to do, I try to prepare them for that as well.

JEANETTE: What are the distances normally?

TESSA: In Belgium we have this canicross short distance between 2.5 and 3.5 kilometers. We also have long distance, and that’s between 4 and 8 kilometers. Usually the same length as the long distance canicross. But you can run both in Belgium with the same dog. For example, long distance is in the morning; then you can use that same dog to run in the afternoon the short distance. But that’s the maximum they’re allowed to do in one day.

JEANETTE: What’s the prime age of a canicross dog? Is there such a thing?

TESSA: I think at the age between 3 and 5, they’re in their strongest. Also, after 3 to 5 years, they are very confident because they know what they have to do. For me that’s the best time.

JEANETTE: When a dog gets older, like you talked about your oldest dog, he’s retired now – when do you decide that now it’s time to retire?

TESSA: I already thought for him, for example last year, that it would be his last year to really compete. But then he was in such great shape for Sweden last year that I gave him another shot, and he did really great. But now, suddenly, the last 6 months his health went down, down, down. So now I decided that it’s okay for him to retire. He’s a 33 kilo dog and he’s 9 years old, and he has always run everything he has. I think it was a good time for him to stop.

JEANETTE: Do you have a new promising puppy on the way? Can you tell us a bit more about him?

TESSA: He is actually from our own breeding. We have this super nice female called Lychee. She is maybe not the strongest dog because she is not the tallest dog either, but we call her the whole package. She has a very nice character, she is so easy to handle, and she runs really good. So we decided to breed her this year, and she is – we call it a hound. It’s a mixed breed sled dog. We bred her to this pure German short-haired pointer, from Norway actually.

We kept one of her puppies. His name is Petter. He is getting really big at the moment, but he is also, like his mother, a big sweetheart. He is really easygoing. We never thought we would have a second Lychee, but I think we’re going to have a second one.

JEANETTE: Do you have any special ambitions for him? I guess you want him to be a really good canicross dog?

TESSA: Yeah, we first chose the puppy that we liked just by looking at his character and how he was interacting with other dogs, because we had three other dogs and had to work with the others as well. We were actually going to take a female from this litter. We were definitely not going to take a male. But eventually he kind of chose us, I think.

Yeah, we are of course planning to do canicross with him as well. But my boyfriend really likes the snow season. It looks like he’s going to be a big boy, so we think he might be good also for ski touring. I think he can do everything. We don’t really stick them in a box. I have, for example, some dogs that like more bike than canicross, so we try to do also what they like a little bit more.

JEANETTE: Adjusting to the dog. That sounds good.

TESSA: Yes.

JEANETTE: But if you’re just running with Petter, who will be a big dog, I guess running technique is quite important. Do you have some tips for people on how to run?

TESSA: It’s very hard to explain it just by words, but something that they always tell you is that you have to run on the forefoot, the front of the foot, and not land on the heel. That’s very important, because your foot is basically working as some kind of suspension for your body, so you’re taking in the shocks by the front of the foot. If you hit with your heel, then the shock will go in your knees and your hips and your back. It’s very much harder for the body then. So if you have a good running style, it also works proactively for having no injuries and stuff like that.

JEANETTE: Have you ever had any injuries yourself?

TESSA: Yes, I’ve had many. [laughs] Usually it’s always the muscles are overworked, basically, and then we always try to do these strengthening exercises. The parts of the body that I know are the weakest, I try to work on them the most and do some planking, power training. Everything you can basically do at home without weights, even. It’s very easy to do and it helps a lot for your running style.

At track and field we have these special warmup exercises that works with coordination, active stretching, and those also work – it actually makes your brain make a connection to the body, how to move everything better. Those exercises are also always interesting. You can look it up on the internet. You can find plenty of them.

JEANETTE: Having the right equipment is also important to prevent injuries for both people and for dogs. What’s important to think of when you choose equipment?

TESSA: For people, probably something really important is the type of running shoes that you use. You need trail shoes to run on trails. You need street shoes to run on the street. It’s also very important to know your running style, like if you’re a neutral runner or pronation or supination, I think it’s called. We have these special stores where they can measure your foot and look at how you walk, and that’s I think also good to start with if you want to start running right and have no injuries. That’s something important.

For the dogs, for example, it’s very important that you have the right harness. The harness has to fit like a glove, basically. I usually have people that are concerned that the harness is too small, but the biggest thing I always see is that maybe – not most of the people, I’m not going to say that, but many people have a harness that is too big for the dog.

It’s actually worse to have a harness that’s too big than a harness that’s slightly on the smaller side, because you can injure the dog’s shoulder, for example, if the neck is not tight enough. While the dog is pulling, the straps of the neck can slip down on the shoulders, and then he cannot make the movement with his legs to the front freely. Then you can get shoulder injuries and stuff like that.

Also depends on which type of harness you use. Some dogs need some more support in the back. Other dogs do not need support in the back. Also, the shock absorbing line is important to absorb the shocks – not only for you, but also for your dog. It helps to save your dog’s back. Also, the running belt you buy is also pretty important because if you have a really good one, then the pulling point is not on the back, and the lower the pulling point is, the better. It helps me with having a good running style and it keeps the shocks basically off your back.

JEANETTE: What do you do if your dog is having a bad day?

TESSA: I try not to push them. One of my dogs is very sensitive, and sometimes she just stops in the middle of a race. She just sits, looks at me. She has a lot of anxiety and stress. But while she is pulling, it helps her to release the stress. But sometimes she just blocks.

The last thing I can do at that moment is be angry at her, so I usually just stop, I will pet her a little bit and tell her that everything’s okay, and then usually I try to just do this countdown again, and then she starts barking and being happy again, and then she runs off again.

JEANETTE: Then she forgets that she was actually scared.

TESSA: Yes, she forgets because she trusts me. So I think whenever your dog doesn’t want to run, you should never punish it, because he is also not asking to do this. The thing you can do at least for him is to make it as fun as possible. If he has a bad day, maybe you just walk back to the finish line. It’s not a problem. Then just train again and try again next time. I think also they will learn more from that than you being angry at him for no reason.

JEANETTE: Canicross can be good for many dogs, both when it comes to mental health, but also physical health.

TESSA: Yeah, I think it helps a lot of dogs to just get all the excess energy out. It gives them some goal, something that they like to do. I think it can also help for dogs that are having separation anxiety. I’ve had two of them. Whenever they have done something in the morning or in the evening and have been training, they don’t care. They are just nice and sleeping on the sofa, and they don’t do anything wrong.

But dogs that have too much energy and don’t know what to do with it, I think it always tries to find some way out. They’re trying out it in some way, so sometimes it’s destroying things, sometimes they will get maybe really scared or get really anxious about a lot of stuff. So I think canicross is a good way for many dogs to get some rest in their head.

JEANETTE: If you had to do some other sport than canicross with a dog, what would it be?

TESSA: Nothing sled dog related. I think maybe agility or something. I think it’s also a pretty active sport, not only for the dog. I see the person’s always running around like crazy, and they’re pointing where it has to go and jump over, and I see them sweating also after. [laughs] So maybe agility.

JEANETTE: And if you had to do something without a dog, would it be back to track and field again?

TESSA: Yes, I think so. Or maybe mountain biking. I really like mountain biking as well.

JEANETTE: Thank you for sharing all your knowledge and experience with us.

TESSA: Thank you very much for having me here.

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