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Qualitative Behaviour Assessment

Qualitative behaviour assessment (QBA) is a scientific method for assessing what animals feel in different situations. It is an exciting development for QBA to be part of ‘Shaping Inter-Species Connectedness’. This project investigates how humans relate to dogs in different training cultures, and QBA’s task will be to approach this from the dogs’ point of view, asking how they experience these different training conditions. We hope that combining ethnography and QBA, done in this project for the first time, will lead to new and meaningful ways of considering how humans and animals connect. Below we provide some more background about what QBA is and how it works.

QBA was developed with the aim of providing more space for the animal’s perspective – the ‘animal-as-subject’ - in scientific studies of animal emotion and welfare. QBA’s starting-point is that animals are whole sentient beings, and that when we acknowledge them as such, we don’t just see a complex functional system of ‘behaviours’ (e.g. walking), but first and foremost we see a ‘behaver’, a dynamic living being, whose movements are always meaningful and psychologically expressive. Scientists are trained to measure what animals do physically (e.g. walk, sniff, rest), but it is in observing how animals do what they do, that we can get closer to how they experience the situation they are in. An animal can walk, fly or swim around in a way that is relaxed and curious, or tense and anxious; the behaviour is the same, but the expressive quality differs, providing a window on the animal’s feelings. QBA asks people to interpret and quantify these qualities, and then uses statistical analysis to identify patterns of expressivity that describe how individual animals, or animals in groups, can differ in their emotional response to a situation.

QBA was not the first to apply qualitative assessment to animals. This type of assessment had been used by scientists to address different individual styles of behaving in animals, often interpreted in terms of an animal’s temperament or personality (e.g. shy-bold). Pioneering field ethologists such as Jane Goodall and Cynthia Moss, in their life-long studies of chimpanzees and elephants, used it to describe the characters and emotions of the animals they knew so well. QBA’s aim was to extend this work, proposing that from a whole-animal perspective, qualitative terms such as ‘anxious’ and ‘relaxed’ do not merely describe ‘behavioural style’, but also address what animals actually, subjectively, feel.

Much of this is common sense. Most people living or working closely with animals learn to read their animals’ expressions and feel they effectively engage with the animal’s experience. However scientists traditionally do not consider it possible to observe animal feelings directly, and regard claims to the contrary with great wariness. Indeed, as with any form of communication, misunderstandings can arise, and mistakes of judgment are made. Particularly there is a risk of overly humanizing an animal’s expressions, a problem known as ‘anthropomorphism’. It is important therefore to be well-informed about different species’ particular ways of communicating, and if possible to cross-check QBA outcomes with other measures of animal welfare. Years of QBA research at SRUC and other institutes across the world have shown that with adequate instruction, people’s assessments of animal expressivity can be reliable and valid, and make an important contribution to assessments of animal welfare. In short: better recognition of animals as sentient beings leads to better knowledge of their welfare.

In this video you can listen to Professor Francoise Wemelsfelder talk about the Qualitative Behavioural Assessment.