What The Heck is Parsimony?

A friend remarked to us recently that every time she goes out of town and leaves her dog, Mason, with Sarah, a close friend, Mason always defecates overnight in one particular spot in Sarah’s house.  Mason will occasionally do this at home, but not on a regular basis, and the dog is quite familiar with both Sarah and her home.

Our friend could not figure out any possible reason why Mason would be doing this, and therefore concluded that it had to be because Mason was mad at her for leaving him.

We’ve been discussing what’s behind this common tendency to jump on anthropomorphic explanations as the very first or most likely reason for a pet’s behavior.  Perhaps it’s because most pet owners believe they are the simplest explanation for their pets’ behaviors.  As behaviorists, we view them as just the opposite – as the most complex.  Let’s take a look at why.

If Mason was defecating in the house because he was mad about being left behind, his thought processes must have gone something like this:  “Left behind again huh?  I am so mad at my mom for doing this to me!  What can I do to let her know how upset I am?  I know how much she thinks of Sarah, and I bet she would just DIE if I messed in her house.  After all, my poop is pretty nasty smelling so I’m sure Sarah will NOT enjoy cleaning it up.  Wait until Sarah tells my mom what I’ve done.  That’ll teach my mom that leaving me behind has consequences and she better not do it ever again!”

Now, we hope that sounds as ridiculous to you as it did to us when we wrote it!  It should illustrate why attributing spite and revengeful motivations to animals are in actuality complicated explanations rather than simple ones.

What might be some simpler explanations for Mason’s behavior?  Mason’s schedule might be different in Sarah’s home, causing his patterns of elimination to shift.  Sarah might not be in the habit of giving Mason a last potty break right before bed or perhaps Sarah is giving him more treats than he usually gets at home.  Mason might be afraid to go outside at Sarah’s place because of even one experience with a startling noise (anything from construction equipment to thunder).  Mason might be a bit anxious
away from mom, even though Sarah is familiar to him.  Perhaps Mason doesn’t like the texture of what is available for elimination in the yard.  He may have only had access to a graveled dog run rather than the grass he may be accustomed to.

These are all more straightforward explanations than invoking the higher thought processes required for spite to be the motivation for Mason’s defecation.  A well established principle in the study of animal behavior is that of parsimony.  Also known as Occum’s Razor, it mandates choosing the simplest explanation for a behavior that accounts for the facts, even if more complicated options are available.

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