From blind Canicrosser to DogFit Trainer: The inspiring journey of Paralympian Jess Tuomela

Posted by Ginetta George, 6th March 2024

Podcast Blog: Episode 40

Canicrosser and Paralympian, Jess Tuomela lost her sight at the age of three, but never let that stop her. At sixteen, she was selected to represent Canada in swimming in the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games. She then went on to compete in more Paralympics before taking up Canicrossing with her guide dog, Brandy and becoming a DogFit Trainer.

Here, Jess talks to the DogFit team about her experiences and why Canicrossing is a great activity for everyone.

Tell us about your experiences at the Paralympic Games. We’d love to hear how the journey began for you?

I was a competitive swimmer first and then I took a long break before becoming a triathlete. So, my participation in my first three Paralympic Games were as a swimmer before entering the triathlon event for my fourth one. When I first started swimming, I didn’t even know that the Paralympics existed, or that there was an option for me to become a competitive, or elite athlete. I had grown up swimming in lakes and was terrified of deep water! However, it all ended up clicking for me and I loved it.

Then, it was quite a switch for me to change to triathlons as swimming is a more controlled environment. You have the lane ropes and water that is usually always the same temperature. Then you go on to do a triathlon and every course is different. Temperatures are different too, as is the weather. I mention that because being a triathlete and dealing with those changes gave me the skills to become a Canicrosser too.
When you competed in the Paralympics, how did it work? What are the different classifications?

Every sport has classifications. You are given a number which indicates what your disability is. Ideally, you will then compete with people who have the same disability. In swimming, I was classified as an ‘S11’, which means that I am completely blind. When I was racing in paratriathlon, I was classified as a ‘VI (visually impaired) B1’, which is also completely blind. The numbers allocated are not always the same for each sport, so it can be confusing! Then, there are standing classifications for people with ambulatory disabilities and wheelchair classifications for people who use them.
Cast your mind back now to when you were first told that you had been selected to represent Canada at the Paralympics. That must have been pretty special?

It was special. It was for the Sydney Games in 2000 and I was just 16 years old. I went to swimming trials and qualified in the morning, but didn’t quite make the time in the evening finals. I had bounced off the lane ropes – as a blind swimmer, you don’t always move in straight lines. So, it makes the distance that you actually swim slightly longer. In a sprint distance, an extra three or five metres can make a big difference to your time.

We put in an appeal – there is a rule that says if you are on the Olympic pathway, qualified in the morning heats and were not beaten by anyone in the evening finals, you could still get a spot in the team. However, our rule for the Paralympic team was different. You had to qualify both in the morning and the evening. We asked why the rule was different for us and fought our case for about two months. I was only a kid back then and, while I was sad about having to appeal, I was also thinking about things like going on summer break and having a normal summer.
Then we found out that they had overturned the rules, changed my ruling and that I would be going to the Games after all. So, it wasn’t a typical case of making my goal and thinking, ‘Wow!’ straight away. When it began to sink in was when I went to a training camp with the rest of the national team. There were 27 of us and I started to feel part of the team and that I had managed to achieve something really special.
I hadn’t competed internationally before that point, so I reckoned that beginning with the Paralympic Games really was a case of ‘go big or go home!’ When we got our official kit and I was actually sitting on the plane going to Australia, that was also when it started to feel very real.

You didn’t stop there, did you? You went on to compete in the Paralympic Games in Athens and Beijing. Tell us about those.
Yes, I swam in those two Paralympic Games in 2004 and 2008. I also took part in the Parapan Games in 2007 and won several medals, so that was a big year for me too. After that, I took a really long break when I didn’t really do much structured exercise. I did a lot of walking instead and studied sports massage. I felt I was ready to move on to a new phase in my life working as a support person for elite athletes. I didn’t think that I wanted to be an elite athlete myself any more.

So, I did that for a while. It really helped me learn how to train people and understand more about biomechanics. The study programme was really intense and I was really grateful to learn so much from it. I worked as a registered massage therapist for a while and then decided it was time to move to the UK. I lived in Edinburgh for two years, where I gained a performance psychology diploma from the University of Edinburgh. Throughout that time in my life, however, I didn’t feel that I was completely done with sport. Although I was happy to stop swimming, I didn’t really know what to do.
I was in the UK when the 2012 London Paralympic Games were on and really loved the buzz around the whole country. I missed being part of it. I had noticed other people taking part in triathlons and wondered whether I could try that too. So, I started getting more curious about triathlon training. I did a couple of Parkruns, which were great. We don’t really have those in Canada. I remember one Parkrun was the windiest one I have ever done. I wondered whether I was even moving forward at some points!
Then, I moved back to Canada and got my Master’s degree in social work. I got into that after volunteering in a prison with a puppy breeding programme for guide dogs. It was around that time when I really got into serious triathlon training. I found running the hardest part – I have never been great at that. I bought myself a treadmill to help me get to grips with it better. I signed up for two half-marathons and one full one.

How did you find the lake swimming part of your triathlon training without any lane ropes to guide you?

That was terrifying! Going from pool swimming to the open water is a huge jump. I don’t know if it is the same for every completely blind person, but for me, anything that gave me an idea of how fast I was going, and in which direction, was gone. The lanes were gone and even the currents from other swimmers going in different directions. There were no walls to hit at the edge of the lake like there are in a pool to give me an idea of distance or direction.
I also had to get used to swimming in a wetsuit. When I moved on to racing triathlons and competed in events where there were no wetsuits, I was probably one of the only people cheering about not having to wear one. Visually impaired athletes taking part in triathlons are tethered to someone else when they swim or run. So, I also had to get used to swimming while being tied to somebody. I had to learn how fast I could go and how close I could get to my guide. I switched guides a couple times so had to get used to new people.
It was all of those different puzzle pieces that made me love the sport so much. I still haven’t learned everything about it, even though I have retired from it now. It is one of those sports where there is always something new to discover.

It must have been difficult to get used to being tethered to another person, but it was excellent practice for being tethered to your dog while Canicrossing. That leads us on to talking about your experiences with that and running with your beautiful guide dog, Brandy. Tell us about Brandy, first of all.

Photo of blind Canicrosser Jess Tuomela running with her dog Brandy


Brandy is incredible. She is my fourth guide dog and I have been very lucky to have all of these dogs in my life. Brandy has taught me so much. She is four-and-a half and I am already dreading her having to retire! The guide dog before her retired in May and then in June, I was invited to meet Brandy. When I first saw her, she came flying into the room, jumped into my lap and started eating my earrings! I fell in love with her on the spot.
She has a lot of energy and is really intelligent. She needs a lot of stimulation, so probably wouldn’t have made as good a guide dog for people who just like to go to the coffee shop and not go running all the time. She and I work really well together. I think she is a shepherd cross of some kind. I joke that she is part coyote too!

How did you come across Canicross, and how did your first experiences go?

That’s a really good question. When I ran, Brandy would run with me, off leash. Then, there was an incident when she ran off and ‘borrowed’ a chicken. She brought it back to me and put it at my feet. The chicken wasn’t harmed, but my triathlon coach was horrified and said that she couldn’t come to running practice any more. However, I still wanted her to be able to enjoy running with me and not just act as my guide dog.

I saw this programme in the US where people were training dogs to guide people while running and started looking into that. I began jogging with Brandy a little bit with her guide harness on and a soft leather ‘handle’ attachment that helped lessen the pressure on her body. It was really hard to run that way though, as I had to keep my arm by my side in the correct guide dog handling position.
I also had to sign a contract with my national triathlon team saying that I would not engage in risky behaviour while training. I felt that having a blind person running about with only a guide dog as their eyes could be considered quite risky! So, I let things slide a bit while I committed to my standard triathlon training, only letting Brandy come with me for the odd run.

I eventually discovered what Canicross was from a friend who had a dog that needed a lot of exercise. She does a lot of sporting things with him and she showed me the Canicrossing belt and harness that she used to race with her dog. She got me to try on the belt and attached her dog to the harness. We probably ran about ten steps before I said to myself, ‘I am going to do this!’
Canicrossing gives me that lift that I probably wouldn’t have on my own. When most completely blind people run, we run really low to the ground with our feet. I don’t really know why, but I do know that I do it. I find it hard to get a more open position with more of a kickback. When I ran with my friend’s dog – and he isn’t a big dog at all – he gave me the lift I needed. I went back inside my house and ordered the gear right away.
A couple of months later, I decided it was time to retire as a triathlete. I started Canicrossing instead. I didn’t know what to do to begin with. My first run with Brandy was two kilometres and we went out on our own. I got up at 4am to do that, as I knew the trail would be empty at that time and we wouldn’t run anyone over. The trail was right by my house and I had run it regularly, so I knew it very well. I wouldn’t have tried that somewhere unfamiliar to me.
Brandy and I would then go out and run two kilometres together every couple of days or so, getting up early to do so safely. It was very cool, but I wanted to go further.

Photo of Brandy - Jessica's dog Canicrossing

Did Brandy pull initially? Was she a natural at Canicrossing?

Yes, she took to it straight away. I think it was from her guide dog training. As soon as you put a harness on her, she knows that her job is to pull. I wasn’t sure at first if she would be happy going out so far in front of me because her guide dog harness keeps her tucked in right by my side. When she did those first 2K runs, I think her excitement to run overrode her guiding instincts. She knew she was running with me and probably felt my own excitement too.

It was so good to run with my arms for the first time, as I used to run with a hand tether when I trained with a guide for the triathlons. It was so freeing, like when people get their driving licence for the first time and are allowed to drive without having someone in the passenger seat. It felt just like that, only one hundred times better!

That’s a really good way of putting it – that you feel free. Many people say that they feel like their feet are lifted off the ground for longer when they are Canicrossing and being pulled along by their dog.
Absolutely. It made me want to run further and further. I started recruiting other people to run with me and act as my navigation system. They would either run beside my shoulder or up midline on the bungee with Brandy right up front. I started to wonder if I could race – I do still want to do that if I can – so I didn’t want Brandy to have to follow someone else. If we do ever manage a race, I don’t want people saying that we are only following others, rather than taking part in the same way.
I also want Brandy to be able to run at her own pace and under her own steam. Canicross has been great for that. It also means that my running guides don’t have to do as much work as Brandy’s guiding instincts kick in and she knows where to go. I was out with some Canicrossers the other day and Brandy guided me around a puddle rather than running straight through it. They were amazed!
This is why the Canicross equipment works so well. You can communicate with your dog through the slightest adjustments and know where they are heading. It is seamless. How has Canicrossing helped strengthen your bond with Brandy?

She and I are already strongly bonded as a working team, but Canicrossing has certainly enhanced that. Every time we go out running together it reinforces how special she is to me. I have another working dog who finds missing people. I go out with her and work separately to Brandy. I think that both dogs having distinct jobs and roles to perform has helped them feel safe and valued in our home.

You are now a DogFit Canicross Trainer yourself. When someone comes to one of your classes, what can they expect?

I do a lot of things by feel, so people will have to understand that I will be touching their dogs. One of the very first people who came for a training session with me had a very reactive dog. He wasn’t happy to be touched, so I had to do a lot of verbal instructing and ask his owner to fit him and give me feedback as she did so. I have now been able to get my hands on him and he is happy to see me because he understands what is happening and what I need to do.
I don’t really have personal space or a personal bubble – I bounce off other people, including my guide runner! When I am out on a trail and the path gets narrow, Brandy tends to take the most direct path and so I can come into very close contact with people. So, this also translates into my work with people and fitting their belts. I have to check whether people are alright with me touching their waist to check for the right fit. If they are worried, I put my own belt on and show them what it should look like when it fits correctly instead. People are generally happy to adapt though.
I use a lot of verbal communication, especially while we are out running. It means that my students and I develop really good teamwork. I also listen to people’s feet while they are running to work out where they are landing. For example, how they are coping with a gravelly trail. Basically, every trainer is different and develops their own style. It’s all about finding the right person to work with, whether they can see or not. There is generally a lot of laughter in my classes.

DogFit and Canicrossing are both very much about inclusivity, which is a vast area to cover. We talk about any person and any dog being able to take part, age and health permitting. Whether you have a physical impairment or not, it is all about getting out with your dog, keeping fit and having fun. What does inclusivity mean for you in this context?
I think it is about finding what works for each particular person and dog. For the reactive dog that I mentioned earlier, it is all about finding quieter trails and calm spaces in which to train. This helps him feel safe and his owner to feel confident to take him out Canicrossing. Helping people experience the world through a different means.

Canicrossing isn’t all that big in North America yet. So I am trying to help build that up for anyone who wants to take part, as well as support a population that many people wouldn’t think could fit with the sport. If I can do it with one of the most significant disabilities you can have, anyone can! I like to ask people what they think they are capable of and then challenge them to push a little further. I would love to get athletes who use wheelchairs involved too, perhaps by using adaptive mountain bikes or something like that.
For me, inclusivity also means having collaborative conversations about how to involve people and get them excited about the sport. People tend to enjoy watching me and Brandy run past, but if I get the chance to explain that I can’t see, they get even more excited and ask how they can take part too. Inclusivity is all about having people come to me with that excitement and working out together how to solve any problems that might be getting in their way. I don’t have all the answers, but I am very happy to go and find them out. There are so many options for making the sport accessible, choosing suitable trails and so on.
For anyone who might be apprehensive about trying Canicross, what would you say to them?

I’m one of those people who gets stuck into things, even if they seem scary at first, so perhaps I am not the right person to answer that question! What I would suggest is trying something that is involved with the sport, but not going all out at the start. So, if you don’t feel ready to run, try walking with your dog and the Canicross harness and belt. Start small and build up slowly.
Find a trainer with whom you feel comfortable. You don’t have to do it alone—that’s the cool thing about DogFit! If you’re scared, reach out and ask for help. You might be surprised by how much knowledge and support is out there.

If you live in Greater Victoria, Canada and want to try Canicross, you can find out more and contact Jess here.

You can also follow her Canicross adventures with Brandy over on Instagram.

For help and advice about kit, please visit or email us at

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