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The Power of Dynamic Method Dispatch in Python

Updated: at 04:23 AM

Dynamic method dispatch refers to the ability to call different methods based on the runtime type of an object, rather than the declared type. This powerful feature allows for flexible and extensible code in Python. In this comprehensive guide, we will examine what dynamic dispatch is, how it works in Python, key benefits, and provide examples to demonstrate its capabilities.

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What is Dynamic Method Dispatch?

Method dispatch refers to how a programming language determines which method to call for an object, based on the method name and object type. Static dispatch associates method calls with types during compile time. Dynamic dispatch looks up and invokes the method during runtime.

Python uses dynamic dispatch for method calls. When you call a method on an object in Python, the actual method that gets executed depends on the object’s class. Python looks up the method name in the object’s class at runtime and invokes the matching method.

This differs from static typed languages like Java or C++ that use static dispatch. In static dispatch, the method being called is fixed at compile time based on the variable type. Dynamic dispatch is more flexible since you can call a method on an object and Python will find the proper method for that object type at runtime.

How Dynamic Dispatch Works in Python

In Python, every object contains a __dict__ dictionary that maps method names to functions. When you call object.method(), Python checks object.__dict__ and calls the matching method function.

If the lookup fails in the object’s class, the search continues in the superclass definitions. This repeats until the method is found or a AttributeError is raised.

For example:

class A:
    def print(self):
        print("This is class A")

class B(A):
    def print(self):
        print("This is class B")

a = A()
b = B()

a.print() # Calls A's print() method
b.print() # Calls B's print() method

When print() is called on each object, Python dynamically looks up the method based on the runtime type of a and b. So b.print() calls the print() method from class B, even though b is an instance of the superclass A.

This demonstrates how dynamic dispatch allows objects to exhibit different behaviors for the same method call. The appropriate method is looked up and called at runtime rather than being statically bound.

Benefits of Dynamic Dispatch in Python

Dynamic dispatch provides several advantages that promote flexible and extensible code:

1. Inheritance and Polymorphism

Dynamic lookup allows inherited classes to override methods from the parent class. Child classes can provide their own implementations that are called dynamically at runtime.

This polymorphic behavior where objects behave differently for the same method call enables code reuse and abstraction with subclasses.

2. Duck Typing

Duck typing refers to checking for behavioral methods rather than strict typing. As long as an object quacks like a duck, we can treat it as a duck.

With dynamic dispatch, Python code can call methods on objects without worrying about the exact class. As long as the needed method is defined, the code will work regardless of the object’s type.

This allows different unrelated objects to be used interchangeably if they have the same method signatures. Dynamic dispatch enables this flexible duck typing in Python.

3. Extensibility

You can easily extend Python code by creating new classes that inherit from existing ones. Override parent methods to provide custom implementations without modifying the original code.

This extensibility comes from dynamic dispatch. The original code does not need any changes to leverage new subclasses and behaviors.

4. Maintainability

Dynamic dispatch promotes better maintainability. You can modify objects and classes without rewriting other code that interacts with them. As long as the public methods remain consistent, internal changes are isolated.

This encapsulation makes it easier to refactor code over time as requirements change.

Dynamic Dispatch in Action

Let’s go through some examples to see dynamic dispatch in action and how it provides benefits like polymorphism and extensibility.


We’ll create a simple Animal class with a speak() method, then extend it with specific animal classes:

class Animal:
  def speak(self):
    raise NotImplementedError("Subclass needs to implement this method")

class Dog(Animal):
  def speak(self):

class Cat(Animal):
  def speak(self):

dog = Dog()
cat = Cat()

dog.speak() # Calls Dog's speak()
cat.speak() # Calls Cat's speak()

Dog and Cat provide their own speak() implementation, overriding the general Animal method. Python dynamically dispatches dog.speak() and cat.speak() to the proper subclass method at runtime.

This polymorphic behavior avoids the need for complex conditionals based on object type. We can call speak() generically on any Animal without worrying about the specific subclass.


Let’s implement a simple calculator app that supports addition and subtraction:

class Calculator:
  def calculate(self, x, y, op):
    if op == 'add':
      return x + y
    elif op == 'sub':
      return x - y
      raise ValueError("Unsupported operation")

calculator = Calculator()
result = calculator.calculate(5, 2, 'add')
print(result) # 7

We can easily extend the calculator to support multiplication and division, without modifying the original code:

class AdvancedCalculator(Calculator):
  def calculate(self, x, y, op):
    if op == 'mul':
      return x * y
    elif op == 'div':
      return x / y
      # Fallback to parent class method
      return super().calculate(x, y, op)

calc = AdvancedCalculator()
result = calc.calculate(5, 2, 'mul')
print(result) # 10

The AdvancedCalculator class inherits from the original Calculator but overrides calculate() to handle more operations. Python dispatches calc.calculate() calls dynamically to the subclass method.

We’ve extended the app’s capabilities without any invasive changes to the original codebase thanks to dynamic dispatch.

Duck Typing

Python’s dynamic dispatch enables duck typing and using objects interchangeably based on their methods rather than classes:

class Duck:
  def quack(self):

class Frog:
  def quack(self):

def make_sound(obj):

duck = Duck()
frog = Frog()

make_sound(duck) # Quack!
make_sound(frog) # Ribbit!

The make_sound() function accepts any object that implements quack(), regardless of its actual type. This shows how duck typing allows different unrelated objects to be used interchangeably.

As long as the object provides the expected methods, Python’s dynamic dispatch handles invoking the correct implementation based on the runtime type.

When to Use Dynamic Dispatch in Python

Here are some guidelines on when dynamic dispatch can be useful in Python:

Limitations of Dynamic Dispatch

While powerful, dynamic dispatch also comes with some trade-offs to consider:

Best Practices for Dynamic Dispatch

Follow these best practices when leveraging Python’s dynamic dispatch:


Dynamic dispatch provides polymorphism, extensibility, and flexibility to Python programs. Method calls are dynamically looked up on object types at runtime rather than being statically bound. This enables duck typing and easier refactoring of code via subclasses.

Used judiciously, dynamic dispatch facilitates adaptable object-oriented design. Define abstract classes that provide common interfaces, then extend with subclasses that specialize behavior. Override parent methods to provide custom implementations without invasive changes.

While powerful, dynamic dispatch has drawbacks like performance costs and complexity. Use it appropriately based on project needs. Favor composition over extensive subclassing, test rigorously, and avoid ambiguity in method resolution order.

When applied properly, Python’s dynamic dispatch can significantly improve code adaptability and reuse. Method lookups based on runtime types rather than declared types enable polymorphism, encapsulation, and extensibility. Overall, dynamic dispatch introduces welcome flexibility into Python systems.