Arena, L., Wemelsfelder, F., Messori, S. et al. 2019. Development of a fixed list of terms for the Qualitative Behavioural Assessment of shelter dogs. PLoS ONE 14(10), e0212652.
The shelter environment may have a severe impact on the dogs’ quality of life, and there is thus a need to develop valid tools to assess their welfare. These tools should be sensitive not only to the animals’ physical health but also to their mental health, including the assessment of positive and negative emotions. Qualitative Behaviour Assessment (QBA) is a ‘whole animal’ measure that captures the expressive quality of an animal’s demeanour, using descriptive terms such as ‘relaxed’, ‘anxious’, and ‘playful’. In this study, for the first time, we developed and tested a fixed-list of qualitative QBA terms for application to kennelled dogs. A list of 20 QBA terms was developed based on literature search and an expert opinion survey. Inter-observer reliability was investigated by asking 11 observers to use these terms to score 13 video clips of kennelled dogs. Principal Component Analysis (PCA) was used to extract four main dimensions explaining 70.9% of the total variation between clips. PC1 characterised curious/playful/excitable/sociable demeanour, PC2 ranged from comfortable/relaxed to anxious/nervous/stressed expression, PC3 described fearful demeanour, and PC4 characterised bored/depressed demeanour. Observers’ agreement on the ranking of video clips on these four expressive dimensions was good (Kendall’s W: 0.60–0.80). ANOVA showed a significant effect of observer on mean clip score on all PCs (p<0.05), due to few observers scoring differently from the rest of the group. Results indicate the potential of the proposed list of QBA terms for sheltered dogs to serve, in alignment with other measures, as a non-invasive assessment tool. However, the observer effect on mean PC scores points towards the need for adequate observer training, particularly in live scoring conditions. The QBA scoring tool can be integrated with existing welfare assessment protocols for shelter dogs and strengthen the power of those protocols to evaluate the animals’ experience in shelters.