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The secret ingredient to social bonding

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

"When no one cares about you and when you lose someone who did, when you feel isolated and disconnected – even in a crowd -, and when you miss someone so much it almost takes your breath away, loneliness overcomes you and robs you of rhyme and reason. That’s when your confidence hits rock bottom and in its place moves pain; emotional pain, it seems at first, until suddenly you notice little body aches that weren’t there before. Your overall wellbeing crumbles and you stop being your normal self. The pain of loneliness is real; but your brain is designed to survive and thrive anyway, and even though it is hard for you to get through the day, you find a way." (excerpt from the book draft Affective Dog Behavior)

This is what happens when our brain experiences decreased levels of the "secret ingredient", which is a family of neuropeptides that we will discuss in just a little bit. The reason why we aren't disclosing its identity just yet is that we want you to keep an open mind for a little while longer. While the purpose of this article is not to go into great scientific detail, we do want to raise awareness about the presence of this "secret ingredient" that courses through the bodies of every social animal, including us humans and our canine companions. It is such an important ingredient; the main contributor really to our overall wellbeing and happiness - yet, it is rarely talked about.

Now, after "feeling" this intense pain of loneliness that we have put in words above, imagine the opposite. Imagine the sheer joy that comes from a loving embrace, the tingling in the pit of your stomach when you hold hands with someone you deeply care about, or the warmth you feel when someone cares about YOU.

As we all know, opposites attract, and these two - the agony of loneliness and the heartwarming depth of true connection - are no exception. But what's behind this attraction. How can we be so happy one moment and hit rock bottom the next? What makes us social, and why do we need one another? What is it that draws us together? Why do we - sometimes absentmindedly - reach out to pet a dog, cuddle with a child, hug our partner, or pick up the phone or go online to connect with someone we haven't heard from in a while? Why do our dogs constantly seek our "attention"? Why does it hurt when we miss someone, or when we feel disconnected and lonely? And how can we care so much about others that we willingly walk through fire just to be with them or help them feel safe? The answer to all these and many more social questions is simple: we are inherently addicted to a specific neuropeptide without which we wouldn't care about one another at all. In short, without this "secret ingredient" social bonding would not exist.

Unfortunately, there is a negative stigma that surrounds this "secret ingredient", because it is also available and greatly misused in synthetic form. And as such, whole societies around the globe are dealing with the devastating effects of drug addiction. But even though researchers have known about its endogenous* form, it's not something the general public is ever truly made aware of. Though the research is there, it's not typically being "advertised" outside the circles of science. Why not? Well, your guess is as good as ours. All we know is that, as long as we don't acknowledge that there is a link between our innate (endogenous) addiction, social connection, mental illness and addiction to synthetic drugs and alcohol, we will not be able to deal effectively with mental illness and exogenous addiction.

The endogenous opioid system

It wasn't until the 1970s that researchers discovered the endogenous opioid system (EOS). Until then, opioid was only known in a synthetic form (exogenous opioids, aka opiates) and greatly valued as a painkiller. Unfortunately, opioid also had, and still has, a devastating and worrisome side effect: it quickly causes addiction.

The endogenous opioid system is distributed throughout the

  • Central Nervous System - which consists of the brain and the spinal cord, as well as the

  • Peripheral Nervous System - which includes the nerves that extend from the spinal cord to the rest of the body.

The EOS is made up of 3 families of opioids and 3 families of opioid receptors. The opioids are known as beta-endorphins, leu and met enkephalins, and dynorphins. Beta-endorphins (simply known as endorphins) are mostly responsible for the activation of the mu-receptors to help regulate pain and social stimuli (amongst a few other functions). The leu and met enkephalins also activate mu-receptors as well as delta receptors to assist with pain modulation, while kappa receptors are activated mainly by dynorphins and also facilitate pain modulation.

In the 1980s, the creator of Affective Neuroscience, Dr. Jaak Panksepp, had the brilliant idea that endogenous opioids might play a vital role in social bonding, for example the bond between a parent and their offspring or the bond between two mates. During his research, which at times involved exogenous opioids, he learned that animals would persistently engage in behaviors that would promise access to the comforting connection with a mate or to the drug itself, even if those behaviors had negative consequences. Unfortunately, Dr. Panksepp's researched theories were not received well in the science community. The idea that a mother-child bond was similar to heroin addiction was simply unimaginable. Luckily, some researchers were a bit more receptive and later confirmed the crucial role endogenous opioids play in the social bonding process.

Emotional Pain

It is quite obvious that the primary function of endogenous opioids is to ease pain. What kind of pain? Let's see. Typically, when we think of pain, we think of physical pain first, and sure enough, when we experience physical pain, our EOS helps us cope by releasing endogenous opioids. However, there is another type of pain we deal with quite frequently throughout our lives, and even more so when we are young: emotional pain. Sadly, emotional pain is looked at as a sign of weakness, and so we are encouraged early on in life to "control ourselves", which, in the long run has the potential to do more harm than good. Additionally, emotional neglect, abandonment and rejection are main contributors to childhood trauma, which oftentimes manifests itself in feelings of being unworthy.

If nurturance and CARE** (as Dr. Panksepp calls it) are defined by the presence of endogenous opioids (amongst other molecules, such as Oxytocin) the feeling of loneliness (SADNESS or PANIC/GRIEF in the Pankseppian world) is the result of decreased levels of endogenous opioids. And thus ...

the importance of CARE is defined

by the devastating effects of PANIC/GRIEF

These devastating effects of PANIC/GRIEF are literally due to opioid withdrawal. It's really important that we understand the extent of what that means! So again: when we experience emotional pain we experience endogenous opioid withdrawal symptoms. And the comforting effects of CARE are the safest and most effective antidote to PANIC/GRIEF.

Controversial Topic

Can the public handle the truth about our innate addictions to endogenous opioids? Are YOU alright with the notion that we all are (endogenous) opioid "addicts"? And our dogs (and horses, and cats, cows, etc.) too? Now, if this topic is so controversial that it is rarely ever talked about, why would we discuss it so openly on a dog-related page? Well, we cannot fight an enemy of trauma and mental illness (in our dogs, too), if we continue to stigmatize the very neurochemistry that makes us social. How will we ever master the art of building secure relationships, if we ignore the most vital facts?

At the end of the day, we need endogenous opioids, and one of the safest, most pleasurable and most comforting ways to replenish or maintain satisfying levels is through CARE (nurturance, social/emotional connection). And if we fail to satisfy our opioid need trough CARE, our brain will trigger alternate opioid-releasing behaviors ... behaviors that do not always meet the approval of society. Behaviors we deem as "problem" behaviors.

Endogenous opioid fluctuations

The levels of endogenous opioids that course through our nervous systems are not static. Rather, these levels fluctuate from micro-moment to micro-moment. Typically, these fluctuations are so subtle that they escape our conscious mind. Nevertheless, our bodies respond to them in ways that prompt us to reach out for connection. Next time when you pet your dog, know that a drop in opioids triggered this behavior. Next time when you pick up your phone to call a loved one, know that this also is a behavior that helps you replenish your endogenous opioids, especially if you feel really loved. These subtle attempts to maintain satisfying levels of endogenous opioids are numerous - from hugging a loved one to squeezing someone's hand in reassurance. From sitting with someone who suffers from depression to caring for a needy neighbor. As long as we can engage in these subtle behaviors to counter minor opioid fluctuations, life is good. But sometimes, opioid levels drop more dramatically, i.e. when we lose a loved one or when we end a relationship or our attempts to connect are rejected. When that happens, we are overcome with feelings of loneliness, grief and sadness in ways we have described at the very top of this article. The emotional pain we experience then can be excruciating, and is oftentimes accompanied by physical pain, and it's all due to being in a state of opioid withdrawal.

A word about Oxytocin

It is almost impossible to discuss CARE and bonding without mentioning oxytocin. Oxytocin is commonly known as the "love hormone", as it is vital in the bonding process. Sadly, it seems that oxytocin is credited with many of the functions and properties of endogenous opioids - whether by accident or intentionally to not rock the boat is unclear. Either way, just as any other neurochemical, oxytocin is prone to multitask, and two of the functions of oxytocin are indeed strongly linked to bonding through CARE. When CARE is given, both endogenous opioids and oxytocin are released, and both are equally important in the social bonding process. While endogenous opioids help the animal (including human) feel good, oxytocin serves as a confidence booster. But oxytocin has another important function. As we all know, opioids are extremely addictive, and our brain can quickly build a tolerance to opioids. However, oxytocin inhibits the brain from building said tolerance.

And why would nature set us up with this addiction in the first place?

"This mechanism assures that both parties continue to engage in social behaviors and also build the confidence (over time) to be on their own (temporarily)"

The human-dog bond

Now that we know just how important endogenous opioids are for an overall feeling of emotional warmth and comfort as well as physical wellbeing, let's take a look at how this knowledge affects our relationships with dogs. Without a doubt, humans enjoy a very special bond with dogs. Even though, many dogs generally enjoy being with other dogs, their need to connect with humans is stronger. Dogs, too, are dependent on endogenous opioids (as are all social species), and the amount and quality of CARE they receive from us determines how well they bond with us and how emotionally safe they feel.

When dogs experience subtle fluctuations of endogenous opioids, they will try to connect with us in their own ways. Unfortunately, oftentimes we label these attempts as "attention seeking", when in reality the dog is in need of endogenous opioids. And when we don't meet their needs, they will experience withdrawal symptoms similar to our own. As mentioned above, social animals are addicted to endogenous opioids. Without these opioids, social animals will go through emotional pain as well as physical pain. And thus, the brain will call for the body to engage in behaviors that help replenish the much needed opioids. Social/emotional connection is the preferred way even for dogs, and without it, the animal will choose other options that will help them meet their needs without us. Typically, we label these behaviors as "unwanted".

The question of "how do we bond with our dogs" comes up a lot. Some trainers recommend that we use high value treats and up our training program. Others are starting to focus more on an emotions-based approach. Hopefully this chart helps you find what works best for your dog.

Key takeaways

  1. All social animals are innately addicted to endogenous opioids

  2. It's this addiction and the harsh effects of withdrawal what keeps us socially engaged with one another

  3. While there are options aside from social bonding to help us meet our endogenous opioid needs, the special cocktail of opioids and oxytocin that is vital for bonding is only released through CARE (nurturance, social/emotional connection)

  4. Next time when your dog seeks your "attention", try to think of it as "connection seeking" and give them what they need. Be there for them. Not only does it tighten your relationship, it also boosts confidence, which in turn builds resilience

  5. These feel-good chemicals are released in both you and your dog during CARE, which makes this a huge win-win situation on every level

  6. Endogenous opioids ease pain ... emotional pain as well as physical pain; thus, our social bonds help us manage physical pain. Just think how quickly we feel body aches when we feel emotionally disconnected

For more information, or to schedule private lessons, please contact us at or check some of the following links/sources, which have been used to support the content in this article.

Recommended reading:

Book: Affective Neuroscience by Dr. Jaak Panksepp

Book: The Archeology of Mind by Dr. Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven

Blog: Holding your partner's hand ... by Beth Ellwood

(*)"endogenous" = something originates from within an organism; in this article we are talking about opioids that are released within our own bodies

(**) CARE = one of the social Primary Emotional Systems as identified by Dr. Jaak Panksepp, who used all capital letters when he named the individual subcortical neurocircuitries; each of these Primary Emotional Systems (SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC/GRIEF and PLAY) are innate and functional without learning

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