The sensitivity of QBA assessments of sheep behavioural expression to variations in visual or verbal information provided to observers
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Qualitative behavioural assessment (QBA) is based on observers’ ability to capture the dynamic complexity of an animal’s demeanour as it interacts with the environment, in terms such as tense, anxious or relaxed. Sensitivity to context is part of QBA’s integrative capacity and discriminatory power; however, when not properly managed it can also be a source of undesirable variability and bias. This study investigated the sensitivity of QBA to variations in the visual or verbal information provided to observers, using free-choice profiling (FCP) methodology. FCP allows observers to generate their own descriptive terms for animal demeanour, against which each animal’s expressions are quantified on a visual analogue scale. The resulting scores were analysed with Generalised Procrustes Analysis (GPA), generating two or more multi-variate dimensions of animal expression. Study 1 examined how 63 observers rated the same video clips of individual sheep during land transport, when these clips were interspersed with two different sets of video footage. Scores attributed to the sheep in the two viewing sessions correlated significantly (GPA dimension 1: rs = 0.95, P<0.001, GPA dimension 2: rs = 0.66, P = 0.037) indicating that comparative rankings of animals on expressive dimensions were highly similar, however, their mean numerical scores on these dimensions had shifted (RM-ANOVA: Dim1: P<0.001, Dim2: P<0.001). Study 2 investigated the effect of being given different amounts of background information on two separate groups of observers assessing footage of 22 individual sheep in a behavioural demand facility. One group was given no contextual information regarding this facility, whereas the second group was told that animals were moving towards and away from a feeder (in view) to access feed. Scores attributed to individual sheep by the two observer groups correlated significantly (Dim1: rs = 0.92, P<0.001, Dim2: rs = 0.52, P = 0.013). A number of descriptive terms were generated by both observer groups and used in similar ways, other terms were unique to each group. The group given additional information about the experimental facility scored the sheep’s behaviour as more ‘directed’ and ‘focused’ than observers who had not been told. Thus, in neither of the two studies did experimentally imposed variations in context alter the characterisations of animals relative to each other, but in Study 1 this did affect the mean numerical values underlying these characterisations, indicating a need for careful attention to the use of visual analogue scales.
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