Cesar Milan and The Principle of Parsimony

Anytime that we try to explain the behavior of any animal that cannot (or will not in the case of humans) communicate in human language, we are practicing the art of conjecture. For example, the simple act of a dog drinking water might be explained by any (or many) of the following statements:

  • The dog is simply thirsty.
  • The dog has a bad taste in its’ mouth.
  • The dog is nervous and this behavior helps to calm it.
  • The dog bit its’ tongue and the water helps sooth it.
  • The dog is hot.
  • Another dog just drank some water and so this dog has to have some too.
  • There is a fly doing the backstroke in the water bowl and the dog is trying to get the fly.

If I wanted to get really specific I am sure I could come up with at least a dozen others, but I think you get my point. With so many possible explanations available to us, how do we come up with the best one for a dog’s behavior?

If we know things like the circumstances that surround a certain behavior, the history of the dog displaying the behavior, and the health of the dog displaying the behavior, then we are able to take an educated guess and put into practice the principle of parsimony.  In simple terms, parsimony means that all things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be correct. In my drinking dog example, if we know that the dog was just in the backyard chasing a rabbit round and round the yard, we could reasonably assume that the dog is drinking water because it’s hot and thirsty.

This brings me to one of my biggest bones of contention with Cesar Milan, The Dog Whisperer.  To me, many of his theories and explanations for dog behavior seem totally out of sync with parsimony. For instance the following tweet was posted via his twitter account the other day:

“Animals sense vibrations of energy, but smell is their next strongest sense. In dogs, both of these senses are deeply connected.”

Rabbit inside a top hatWhat does he mean by this? Does he mean that dogs are like sharks and have specialized cells (ampullae of Lorenzini) that allow them to detect electrical signals? Simple anatomy tells us that is not the case. Does he mean that our emotions produce energy waves that are not only detectable by dogs– but are discernable as to whether they are good or bad as they relate to the dog? If this is the case then wouldn’t some simple experiments be able to prove this? Where are these experiments and why aren’t they being undertaken by Mr. Milan & others who believe in his theories? The most parsimonious explanation is that he is flat wrong.

We know that dogs are keen observers of body language because without our formal language skills, they have to communicate visually. And like us, dogs use their sense of hearing as a predictor of intention.  And although we both use smell as a means of communication, we know that a dog can detect smells at levels that are lost on us, but are of vital importance to them.

So when you put all of these things together what is more parsimonious, that dogs have a sixth sense about our emotional energy that is directly detectable as good and bad, or that dogs use their heightened senses of sight, smell, and sound as predictors of our emotional state?

On his show The Dog Whisperer, Cesar will often explain a dog’s behavior as being dominant, that the dog is trying to assert its’ authority over that of its’ owner. Even if I bought into his theory that dogs will become dominant if not dominated (which I don’t), there’s still the problem of parsimony.

Many people watch his show and then automatically assume that any behavior that a dog displays that is in contrast to the desire of the owner is an attempt to be dominant. But where is parsimony in this? Let’s try another example. Suppose you have a dog that refuses to go up the stairs, what could be some possible explanations for this?

  • The dog is being dominant.
  • The dog is afraid of the stairs.
  • Something happened on the stairs that scared the dog.
  • Something happened at the top of the stairs that scared the dog.
  • Most of time the dog is taken upstairs he is locked into a room so he is out the way of company.
  • The dog has an underlying medical problem that makes it uncomfortable or painful to go up the stairs.
  • Nothing good ever happens upstairs.
  • Everything good is downstairs.

There are many people who are fans & followers of Cesar that may conclude that the dog is displaying dominance, without first considering any of the other possible (and much more probable) explanations.

I have spoken with many people that firmly believe in Cesar and his methods and incredibly when I ask them why they choose to believe Cesar’s way over more parsimonious explanations, they often answer “common sense”. They see the idea of a dog trying to be dominant over all of its’ environment as being more parsimonious than the idea that the dog is afraid of the stairs.

Sometime later this year Cesar is scheduled to be part of a national symposium on dog training sponsored by The American Humane Association. While the details of his participation have not been publically revealed yet, it is my fervent hope that he will debate his peers in an open forum. I would really like to know why his explanations for dog behavior should be chosen above those that are more in line with parsimony.

As always, we welcome comments from both sides of the issue.


Kevin, Jackie, Gavin, Annie, Tosha

5 thoughts on “Cesar Milan and The Principle of Parsimony

  1. I would love to be a fly on the wall to see that uneducated snake oil salesman who makes it up as he goes along actually debate learned, experienced and educated dog professionals. Instead of handling (and damaging) dogs, he should be employed cleaning out toilets, because that’s where most of the crap he spouts should be going.

    I too would love to be there to hear professionals question him.. always had a secret desire to meet him in person and pretend to be a dog owner and question all that he says and why and where he came up with it!!!

  3. The “energy” thing has always struck me as a little bit–okay, a lot–out there. When we were first looking into getting a dog, I read a lot of dominance-based stuff, including the advice “don’t feel sorry” for the dogs you see at the pound. Because apparently dogs interpret sympathy as submission and will bully you horribly if you feel sad for them ever.

    All that really did for me was stress me out that I would be a horrible dog owner because my emotions don’t actually come with an off switch. (I cry at Disney movies, for frell’s sake. I’ve cried over Facebook posts of dogs that have been treated badly and desperately need to be adopted, let alone actually seeing an abused or malnourished dog.)

    And I really think that “energy” is a convenient way of talking about signals that you might not be aware of. Dogs aren’t picking up on some mystical vibe, they’re picking up on your body language, facial expression, tone of voice, and how you smell. The problem is that it makes it appear that you must feel a certain way to interact appropriately with a dog, and it creates a catch-all way to blame the owner if anything goes wrong. Dog didn’t do what you wanted? You must be giving off the wrong energy.

    I think trying to control the emotions you’re feeling is like trying to nail fog to a wall, and it’s much more helpful to talk about controlling the signals you send.

  4. Thank goodness you brought this to light! I am as we speak, constructing a foil helmet to protect me from the “vibrations of energy” that my dogs must be sensing and emitting. At last, protection from dog dominance (and aliens)!

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