LOS ANGELES -- Teach your dog or cat a few tricks, and your golden years will be better for it.
The movement to improve care for older pets has been going on for some time. But the idea of training pets to help out aging baby boomers is relatively new.
Between 1946 and 1964, 76.4 million baby boomers were born. By this time next year, about a third of them will be between 65 and 70. Millennials will outnumber their predecessors, but boomers were the generation that made cats and dogs part of the family.
Gayle Krigel of Kansas City, Missouri, just turned 65 and doesn't need help now, but she's training her dogs so that when the time comes, they'll be ready. She has two rescues, a very intelligent husky mix named Shammy and a slightly less brilliant St. Bernard mix named Mousse.
After Shammy learns how to fetch the newspaper from the yard during the winter, the dog will start learning to find the remote, which is always lost. And then, because they live in a three-story house, Shammy will learn some "upstairs, downstairs, fetch" commands.
Krigel also drills the dogs twice a day on "sit and stay." Those commands and a few others are crucial to keeping you and your pet safe, especially for older owners who may have a harder time physically restraining an active animal. "Sit and stay" will keep dogs from jumping on you or a visitor, from darting out the door and from straying, said Krigel's trainer, Geralynn Cada. If you drop your medicine, "leave it" or "wait" will stop your dog from taking it. "Off" will warn him off a table, chair or even you.
Teach your dog or cat to come immediately if you call, in case you need help or the pet is in danger. Then throw in some fun commands like "shake," ''give me five" or "roll over," Cada said.
A well-trained dog should walk on a leash without pulling so he doesn't jar achy old bones or pull you down on an icy street. A short leash with a fat handle works best, Cada added.
Treats and/or praise are key to reinforcing the learning. (Treats work better than praise for cats because feline attention spans are shorter, only minutes at a time, while dogs can pay attention for 20 or 25 minutes.)
Some retirement homes offer training classes for seniors with pets, Cada said, and some veterinarians and trainers have training videos online. Cada's are free to watch here, a site owned by Dogster and Catster magazine.
You can mentally challenge your dog if you go through a series of commands -- sit, stay, lie down, shake, off, roll over, speak, come - in random order at least once a day, Cada says.
Dr. Janet Cohn treats cats at her Purrfect Care Feline Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. She already makes house calls and in January will open a hospital to allow longer visits for clients who can't come and go easily.
She recently visited a sick cat owned by a 93-year-old. The owner told Cohn how she only left the cat alone once a week - on Fridays to play chess. "For a lot of older people, a huge part of life is having another living being in the house," Cohn said. "Their routine, cats or dogs, give a lot of people purpose," she added.
Here are some products that can make taking care of pets easier, for aging owners or anyone else:
- iFetch is an automatic ball launcher, using a miniature ball for small-to-medium dogs ($115) and tennis-sized balls for bigger dogs ($199.99). You can find it here.
- Groom Genie is a detangling brush that doubles as a calming massaging brush. Large and paw-like, easy to grip ($19.99). You can find it here.
- Raised food bowls help dogs, but also keep owners from having to bend down too far. Cats can be trained to jump on a counter for meals.
- Some vets, groomers, trainers and stores will make house calls or deliver for a fee. Pooper-scooper services will keep your yard clean.
- Lightweight cat litter can be a godsend, and if you can't bend down to a litter box on the floor, you can put it on a table or platform and teach the cat to jump up. You can also get automatic scooping litter boxes and litter delivery services that clean the box.
- Stickers on doors letting firefighters or paramedics know what pets are in the house will alert first responders in case of an emergency.