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Understanding the Parsimony Principle in Animal Behavior

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Losing your head, wondering why your dog behaves in certain ways?

The principle of parsimony in animal behavior

The principle of parsimony in animal behavior

An Insight into Occam's Razor and The Principle of Parsimony

Whether you are studying psychology, biology, medicine or animal behavior, you may stumble at some point on the Principle of Parsimony. What is it, and how can it be applied to our domesticated companions? Initially known as Occam's razor, the principle dates back to the 14th century when it was frequently used by William of Ockham. William of Ockham was an English philosopher, theologian and Franciscan. The principle used most frequently stated: "Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily." The purpose of his problem-solving principle was to provide guidance when developing a theory. The word "razor" was used figuratively as way of "shaving away" unnecessary assumptions among competing hypotheses.

The principle though was then evolved into stronger forms that Ockham didn't intend, but that exist nonetheless, according to Sugihara Hiroshi . Examples include: "If you have two theories that both explain the observed facts, then you should use the simplest until more evidence comes along" or "If you have two equally likely solutions to a problem, choose the simplest" or ultimately the more modern statement: "Keep things simple! These latter statements should therefore be more correctly coined as the law of parsimony or the rule of simplicity. Confused by the wording? No worries, let's take a look at a few examples applied in different fields...

One of my favorite examples of the principle of parsimony or principle of simplicity comes from the medical field. I used to hear the following statement when I worked for a pharmacy as it was a favorite among doctors: "When you hear hoof beats behind you, think horses, not zebras". In other words, when a doctor visits a patient for sneezing, he should suspect the common cold or allergies, and not a rare condition common in the middle of the tropics with only about 40 cases diagnosed! So yes, keep things simple! Next, let's see how the principle of parsimony can be applied to animal behavior, with a special focus on dogs.

Showdown with Holly: Cesar's Perspective suggests dog is dominant

Showdown with Holly: What Really happened....and it wasn't dominance!

Applying The Principle of Parsimony to Animal Behavior

We often try to give explanations to behaviors our dogs display. Until the day comes that dogs will start talking, these explanations are just fruit of speculation so we really can only make assumptions. The best we can do is evaluate factors and choose the most likely explanation. Often instead, our theories are fruit of anthropomorphism, our tendency to attribute human traits to dogs, other times they are uneducated guesses based on pre-conceived beliefs, that are difficult to eradicate, and other times they're based on plain and simple complex, over thinking. British psychologist C. Lloyd Morgan, applied the principle of parsimony to comparative animal psychology. He claimed in what is known as "Morgan's Canon": "In no case is an animal activity to be interpreted in terms of higher psychological processes if it can be fairly interpreted in terms of processes which stand lower in the scale of psychological evolution and development."

Anthropomorphic Beliefs: Dogs Behaving Out of Spite

My first example comes from a behavior consult dating several years back. I was called to deal with a dog that that "was acting out of spite." The dog in question was a cocker spaniel puppy, a beloved gift from a granddaughter to her dear grandma. Poor grandma was an 80-year old arthritic lady that was left to deal with cleaning up accidents for a good part of the day. When I met her she told me that her pup was driving her nuts and I could feel her frustration. The dog soiled repeatedly around the home and according to her, was doing it on purpose. As we sat down, she explained that every time she scolded the pup for doing something, the pup would "talk back" by peeing right in front of her. From her point of view, the dog was being revengeful. Putting myself in her shoes, I could see how she could think that because I saw it with my eyes. Her pup was starting to chew her shoe and she scolded her, and seconds later the pup squatted to pee right before her eyes. "You see! This is what she does repeatedly during the day" she remarked in a frustrated tone. "She's angry I don't let her have it her way and she pays me back with that annoying dribble of urine," she told me as she bent down on her arthritic knees to clean up the mess.

It ultimately really looked that way, but dog training school had taught me that that was quite a sophisticated thought process especially for a puppy of that age! In order to think that way the puppy had to reason something like this: "My owner doesn't like it when I chew her shoe. That is really unjust. I am teething and it's my right to keep my mouth busy so my rights are being violated. How can I stand up for myself and seek revenge? Let's see....what would really make her unhappy? Oh, yeah.. she really hates it when I accidentally pee when she forgets to take me out, so from now on, every time she scolds me for chewing, I will pee so she gets upset and I get the revenge I deserve. That will make me feel better too"

Turns out, the puppy wasn't peeing from spite but was simply peeing submissively. This is quite a common behavior in young pups and even more common in this sweet, yet sensitive breed. So every time her owner was scolding her, the cocker spaniel was peeing in an attempt to calm and appease her, which soon created a vicious cycle because this would anger the owner even more!

*A word about anthropomorphism: it's not always a dirty word, especially when we recognize that dogs and humans share some common emotions--but, spite is not one of them. Patricia McConnell claims "Yes indeed, being anthropomorphic can get us into trouble, but that doesn't mean it is always a problem. " She further adds in an effective example: "Progressive trainers and animal behaviorists all seem to concur that fear is the number one cause of “aggression,” and yet so often owners neglect to understand that their dog is acting out of fear rather than being stubborn or “dominant.” Seems to me that a little of the right kind of the “big A” would go a long way sometimes. . . " Which brings us to the next point....

Pre-Conceived Beliefs: Cesar's Showdown with Holly

Labeling a dog as dominant is one of the biggest problems dogs face today because this unparsimonious label is over represented without really looking at the real dynamics. Dogs are therefore being labeled as dominant for pulling on the leash, marking, barking and just about anything else. The term dominant is problematic because it blurs the dog's real intent and it promotes an adversarial relationship between dogs and owners. So if your dog pulls on the leash, more likely he's simply doing so to go sniff or meet another dog rather than trying to dominate you!

Take Cesar Millan for instance. In the episode "Showdown with Holly" he is dealing with a dog who is protective of the food bowl. I have included the video on the upper right, it's quite an interesting lesson in dog body language, and then right below there is an interpretation of what really occurred. In the first video, we see how Cesar challenges the dog by getting closer into the dog's space, crouching down and staring the dog as she eats and she reacts by eating faster. Most of behavior experts, would see trouble brewing already at this point. But Cesar goes on...getting more and more intrusive...He then makes his famous "Tssst" sound and cuffs the dog's neck area. Of course, the dog reacts more to his touch and Cesar responds to the challenge by assuming a stiff, imposing gorilla-style position and staring the dog down until the dog "submits." Afterward, Cesar assumes the dog is relaxed and tries to pet the dog, but the dog reacts strongly biting his hand and then keeps on biting until Mr Millan backs her up to a corner. "I didn't see that coming" he claims in disbelief. Truth is, the dog sent dozens of warning signals left and right but they went unheeded. A few minutes later the camera operator claims: "She's still not submissive?" "No," responds Cesar. The video ends with owners apologizing and Cesar reassuring them that it's part of his job.

Clearly, from the remarks about the dog not submitting, Cesar is assuming the dog is being dominant for behaving that way as he does in countless of his episodes. But what about other possible explanations for the behaviors seen? These are for example a few observations a seasoned trainer or behavior professional would note.

  • The dog doesn't trust people near the food bowl.
  • The dog is sending several "leave me alone" messages to defuse the situation but Cesar doesn't read them.
  • The dog is put in a situation she most likely never faced before.
  • The dog feels threatened and is stressed by Cesar Millan's stance.
  • The dog reacts to Cesar's hand which just minutes prior was used to cuff her in the neck.
  • The dog is pushed too far by Cesar's behavior.
  • The dog feels stressed and defensive and reacts accordingly.
  • The dog ultimately attacked not because the dog was protecting the food bowl (the main reason Cesar was called to help with in the first place) but because of Cesar's intimidating behavior. Indeed, there was no food bowl around at the moment of the biting incident.

Notice how these are simple explanations for the dog's behavior are straightforward and how there are no claims of the dog being dominant. This is firstly because dominance is not a personality trait but is rather a behavioral epiphenomenon, therefore it is incorrect to make the blank statement that a dog is being dominant. Secondly, there are more reasonable explanations for this dog's behavior. So did Holly bite because she is dominant? No, she simple bit because she felt threatened and defended herself after giving out oodles of calming signals and displays of ritualistic aggression that unfortunately went unheeded:(

Complicated Beliefs: Thinking in a Complex Way

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We have seen how sometimes, naïve, uneducated guesses based on preconceived beliefs or anthropomorphic thoughts may get into the way, but sometimes, the opposite is true and thinking in an excessively complex way gets also into the way of thinking parsimoniously. This is perhaps the best example for the principle of parsimony.This comes from the book "Positive Perspectives 2: Know Your Dog, Train Your Dog by Pat Miller. In this example, your adult dog has an accident in the house once and only once. You may start thinking that perhaps he has a urinary tract infection, perhaps he is stressed, maybe he has a tumor. Instead, most likely he simply just couldn't keep it any longer and simply had an accident. Only later, you may think about other problems should the issue continue and you carefully monitor the behavior.

As seen, the principle of parsimony advises us to look at simpler, more straightforward explanations before considering more complicated matters such as attributing dogs higher thought processes, living on outdated preconceptions or simply thinking in a complex way. Of course, there may be cases where things may be more complicated, and that is why it's always a good idea to take a good history of behavior and go through the ABC's (antecedents, behavior and consequences) so to find what causes a dog to act in such a way and what fuels such behavior. Also, we must consider that simplicity can be subjective, so what we may consider as a simple explanation may not be to somebody else. Indeed, Sugihara Hiroshi adds: "The law of parsimony is no substitute for insight, logic and the scientific method" At times though, we must consider that dispersing energy in identifying the real motive for a dog's behavior may be time consuming, possibly inaccurate and worthless, especially when the behavior modification protocol remains the same regardless of the underlying motive.

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Disclaimer: this article is not meant to be used as a substitute for professional behavior advice. If your dog is exhibiting behavior problems, please seek the aid of a force-free behavior professional for a hands-on assessment and most appropriate implementation of behavior modification.

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Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 09, 2020:

I think that many of us assign human traits to those of our beloved pets. You have nicely illustrated the law of parsimony concerning keeping it simple when diagnosing behaviors in our dogs. I always learn something new by reading your posts.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 15, 2015:

Thanks so much Tillsontitan. Dog behavior is so fascinating, there's always something new to learn about. I am happy you enjoyed reading this article on the parsimony principle in dogs.

Mary Craig from New York on April 10, 2015:

I love reading your hubs. You always provide us with logical, down to earth explanations and hints. I like this one with your advice not to over think a situation.

I love my dog and read everything I can to understand him more.

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 06, 2015:

I am happy you found the article useful for many owners. Best of luck with your new dog, fearful cases are the ones that give the most satisfaction because you get to reap the rewards in helping them gain confidence and trust!

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on February 06, 2015:

Hi, I always though you never hit a dog. He must have never heard that before. Useful hub and good for all dog owners. I am getting a new dog next Friday. She cowers down and will not stand up straight. I'll have her standing in no time.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on February 02, 2015:

You always greatly mention about our best of friends.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 01, 2015:

Thanks for the votes up Larry! I always enjoy reading your hiking adventures! You're so right about Cesar's approach, it could have been handled in a totally, more respectful way. Have a good Sunday!

Larry Fields from Northern California on February 01, 2015:

Hi Adrienne,

That video of Cesar Milan was a real eye-opener. I am no expert, but it was obvious even to me that he was way 'over the top'. Hitting a poor dog for no good reason -- especially a nice yellow Lab. What a jerk!

Cesar does not have the smarts or compassion to be anything more than a dog-catcher. No, I take that back. Not even a dog-catcher!

On a personal note . . . Many years ago, I borrowed my neighbor's family's Border Collie mix as a regular hiking companion on Saturdays. The simplest way to give Gurr his lunch was to let him eat kibble out of my hand, rather than carrying a bulky plastic food bowl in my rucksack. No problems!

Resource guarding? What would he do? Bark at people and other dogs who got too close to my feeding hand?

Great hub, as usual! Voted up, awesome, and interesting.

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