Americans are getting older, no question about it. Senior citizens (sometimes defined as 65 and older), are a significant segment of today’s society. They, accompanied by the “baby boomers” that are just a little younger, have the time, money, and motivation to be your best students. With some planning ahead, your school can attract and keep older students.
Some important things to consider have nothing to do with your curriculum or how you teach your exercises. For example, many seniors dislike driving at night or on busy freeways. If you make an effort to have classes during the day, and in “friendly” locations, you will entice these folks to sign up. As a bonus, many young moms may enjoy having the choice of day classes, and no one likes going to areas that are difficult to drive to or unsafe. Indoor classes (not on the 2nd floor or in the basement) will be attractive, and you will have the added benefit of climate control and level flooring. Remember to make sure your location is wheelchair friendly, and restrooms should be available nearby. If your permanent location falls short, you may want to take your business “on the road” and offer classes at the local Senior Center.
Many senior students will come to you with small dogs. Keep in mind their concerns should you place them in your typical class full of large dogs! Although as instructors we are used to safely managing classes with tiny toys and big guard type dogs, the mere sight of that typical class may be unnerving to some! You may be able to guide your senior students into classes with more smallish breeds, or even into puppy classes, so that they feel comfortable.
When working for older students, remember to give them what they want and need. Walking the dog on a slack lead for competition purposes may not be a goal, but is instead an important safety consideration. If a dog pulls a younger person and they fall, they will usually be embarrassed and maybe mad at the dog. If that dog pulls an older person and they fall, that person’s life could be changed forever. Not a happy prospect! Walking on a slack lead is an essential exercise, as is coming when called and a good sit in front (prevents jumping up and keeps the dog where collar and lead can be put on, etc). Downs on the floor can easily be modified into “lap downs” for those little dogs that live there or on the sofa, anyway. Don’t be afraid to listen to your students and be creative in coming up with commands that will benefit them the most.
You will find that in your class you can modify many exercises so that seniors can teach them more easily. “Lap downs” instead of downs on the floor are easy if you make sure you have a few chairs at your site. A small plastic table or milk crate (or even a cardboard box) can be utilized to teach the stationary exercises if you don’t have a grooming table handy. If your student can sit in a chair and place their small dog up higher than the floor, it will be much easier for them to practice sits, downs, stands, and dog attention. This can make small dogs feel safer as well.
While lunge-lining the dog may have been a good choice for younger trainers, your senior students will appreciate techniques like luring. For heeling practice, get out the wooden spoon and peanut butter, or the solid lead (made from a dowel with a snap bolt, or just string the lead through a PVC pipe). Stands at heel may be easier to teach than an automatic sit at heel if your student has trouble bending. And any exercise that is lured will probably be more do-able than one which requires getting down on the floor to physically place the dog.
If you tend to have lots of seniors in your classes, make sure you are preparing for them by asking the right questions ahead of time, both on the phone and on your application. For example, they may tell you they have some hearing loss, need to sit down frequently, or can’t kneel or bend well. Knowing things like this ahead will enable you to prepare for them. Veteran class instructors know that nobody likes surprises when you have lots of people and dogs out there.
I have to say that older students have many times been my best students. Some have gone on to be terrific class assistants. If your class is set up to be effective and safe, and give your senior students what they need, you will find they can be wonderful trainers. And don’t categorize your senior on age alone…I have had seniors who run long-distance races. One local older lady is well-known about the agility rings, and when she came to my class, she never once slowed down. I think maybe I am doing more thinking about what seniors need just because I am getting a little older!