By Diane Schlindwein

February 11, 2011 5 min read

If you want to be the owner of an all-around great dog, you need to start getting him socialized while he's still a puppy.

Socialization plays a paramount role in teaching a puppy how to grow up happy and well-adjusted, according to professional dog trainer Barbara Shumannfang. "There are two critical things to keep in mind when socializing a puppy," she says. "One is to make sure the puppy has pleasant exposures to dogs and people. However, it is not enough to expose the puppy to people and dogs; in fact, it can do more harm than good if it's not done properly."

Shumannfang, author of "Happy Kids, Happy Dogs" and founder of Top Notch Dog, also says: "Owners must ensure people are gentle, pet the puppy only one at a time, and feed treats, both home and away from home. They should not pick the puppy up or roll him on his back. The goal is for the pup to think people are wonderful, so they must choose the interactions carefully and make sure encounters are pleasant. If something goes awry, they need to remain upbeat and give the pup a break from the situation. I recommend my clients attend group class, as well as go on at least four short socialization 'field trips' a week."

Shumannfang says puppies should begin socializing with dogs and people at about 8 weeks old. "If the puppy is overly shy, try fewer people at a time or have visitors sit on the floor," she says. "Always let the puppy approach first to initiate the greeting so she is not overwhelmed."

Once a puppy is in your home and away from his littermates, you also should be careful when introducing new dog friends. "Choose an older, gentle dog rather than a rough puppy playmate," Shumannfang says.

Puppy owners also should take care when picking out puppy classes, says another professional dog trainer, Nan Arthur. "The ideal puppy class teaches puppies that they can be in a room with other puppies and focus on their pet parents first, before being allowed to interact with the other pups," she says. "When a puppy attends this type of class, it ensures success when pet parents begin to take their puppy out into the world."

Arthur, the author of "Chill Out Fido!", continues: "These puppies learn to quietly interact with their human companions, even when there are other dogs around. The puppies that attend the (poorly supervised) 'free-for-all' classes often have a difficult time in this same situation because they will have learned that when they see another dog, they should act wild and crazy and ignore their humans."

Proper socialization includes allowing puppies to explore on their own terms while not forcing them to accept new things until they are comfortable and at ease, Arthur says. "For instance, exposing a puppy to a child who is allowed to handle the puppy roughly or inappropriately is not socialization to children. Whereas allowing the puppy to explore and approach a supervised and quiet child who tosses the puppy yummy treats can put a check mark in the 'I like children' column on your puppy's lists of likes and dislikes."

Deana Corbin, executive director of the Animal Protective League, says dogs need to interact with different kinds of people, dogs and even cats. "Dogs need to meet all different kinds of people -- Caucasian, African-American, men, women and children -- especially when they are puppies," she says.

"They also need to be exposed to different-sized dogs. That can happen in obedience training or at the dog park; just going to PetSmart gives them a new, different experience," Corbin says. "Of course, it's best if they learn not to chase cats."

Finally, keep your puppy out and about as much as possible. "Don't sequester the pup," Shumannfang says. "If you do that, you'll miss a fantastic opportunity to show her the ropes when she's young and curious and forming emotional associations about others."

Arthur agrees. "The take-home message is the importance of early puppy socialization and the proper exposure of life's surprises and challenges so that puppies grow into happy and secure adult dogs."

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