17 Facts You Never Knew about Hawaiian Poi Dog

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Facts You Never Knew about Hawaiian Poi Dog

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Known for its vast beaches with unusual colors, Hawaii, or the “Big Island” is a wonderful place to travel to or reside in. The state is also teeming with plenty of wildlife such as the Hawaiian hoary bat, feral pig, rat, mongoose, the Hawaiian owl, lizardfish, monk seals, and more. Whether you are going swimming, kayaking, sunbathing, hiking, biking, or sailing, Hawaii has got you covered.

Apart from breathtaking natural features, Hawaii is also home to the infamous Poi Dog. Although extinct, the memory of this breed lives on. All the Museums in the archipelago feature drawn images and sculptures of the Poi Dog. The natives are definitely proud to be associated with the dog.

Sadly, many people don’t know much about this Hawaiian dog breed. What did it look like? Was it a good companion to the Polynesians? What led to its extinction? If you are interested in knowing the answers to the questions above, here are 17 facts you probably didn’t know about the Hawaiian Poi Dog.

1. It Originated From Southeast Asia

The Polynesians came with the Poi Dog alongside other animals as they made their way to Hawaii to inhabit the land over a millennium ago. This native Hawaiian linguist tribe originated from mainland Southeast Asia. At first, it was believed that this group of people migrated from Taiwan but according to The American Journal of Human Genetics, the Polynesians came from Southeast Asia. The group is a subset of the Austronesian people, which includes Samoans, Cook Islands Maori, Hawaiian Maoli, Tongans, Niueans, and New Zealand Maori. They have the same origin as the present-day inhabitants of Taiwan, Malaysia, Madagascar, and the Philippines.

2. Poi Dog was a Pariah Dog Breed

The Poi Dog was essentially a Pariah Dog Breed. If you are hearing the term for the first time, these are dog breeds that have lived free-ranging life, foraging near or entirely away from human settlements but somehow changed over the course of their history. Some have befriended hunters and became their companions for millennia and are now considered pure breeds by many kennel clubs globally. However, some have remained semi-feral and primitive, skirting the edges of villages and belong to no one. These dogs are similar to vira-lata dogs of Brazil, Askals of the Philippines, the Australian dingo, the Mexican hairless dog (Xoloitzcuintle), and the Indian pariah dog among others.

3. The Dog was bred for food

The Poi dogs were never bred for companionship as is the case today. They were mainly for consumption and as a lucky charm. These canines would have been used to hunt game but the Hawaiian Island sadly contains no big game to hunt. To be frank, though, the Poi dogs were intentionally fattened to make huge protein meals for their owners. Bearing this in mind, they might not have been the best hunters in the game after all.

The Polynesians brought dogs, pigs, and chickens when immigrating to Hawaii. All three provided a good source of protein. There are no reports of any other land mammal found in the Islands except some type of bat. Occasionally, the inhabitants would catch fish to supplement their diet as well. Like the Poi Dogs, the pigs were fed fattened taro and sweet potato to make them swell up. Thanks to this diet that was high in carbohydrates, an adult pig would measure 250-300 pounds. When it was time to be consumed, the native religion would strangle it and cook it in an underground oven.

While the Polynesians had other protein alternatives, they loved dog meat, claiming it was juicier than pork. During feasts, several dogs were baked and roasted to be served to the guests. Puppies would be kept as companions but would be considered a delicacy from time to time as well. In addition to being eaten and used as lucky charms, the hair and teeth of Poi Dogs would be used to make fishhooks, piercing instruments, and other decorative ornaments.

4. Poi Dog was considered a spiritual protector of children

Every newborn in the tribe was gifted a puppy of this breed. The puppy would then be raised alongside the child and even breastfed together (with the puppy) to give it more protective instincts. The two were expected to grow as playmates and to be always in each other’s company.

In the event that the child died at a very early age, the dog would be killed and buried alongside a dead child. And if the child outlived his or her canine companion, he or she would get to wear ornaments made of the dog’s teeth—the adults would pull the canine’s teeth and string them together in a necklace. According to the Hawaiian tribe, doing this ensured the dog protected his master even in death.

As you can guess, the Poi Dog breed was exceptionally good with children. Considering that they were bred and trained from puppyhood to be children’s protectors, they were very familiar with kids. They played and slept around children throughout the day.

However, being slow and inactive, the Poi Dog rarely protected the children against strangers. These dogs didn’t have an aggressive personality and even rarely barked. So, we can confidently say that it was not a good idea to leave your toddler with these dogs.

5. The Poi name originated from the diet fed to the canines

The Poi name originated from the fermented taro (or poi), a Hawaiian staple fed to the dog. This type of diet made the dog plump and soft—perfect for consumption. Besides using the diet to make the dogs fat, the Polynesians fed Poi to their dogs because there was no other available protein option for them to consume. Sure, there were pigs and chickens but these were scarce and too valuable for the poor dogs.

Today, the name “Poi Dog ” is not only used to refer to mixed-breed dogs but also to attribute certain features that were common in the extinct Poi Dog breed like a strong will, ability to consume anything, and unique appearance. “Poi Dog” or “hapa” is also used colloquially to describe anybody of mixed Hawaiian-Anglo heritage.

6. Poi Dogs had barrel-shaped bodies and coats of different colors

The Hawaiian Poi Dog was stout in nature and had a distended belly, short chubby legs, and a barrel-shaped body. Over time, his head became flat and bigger without a prominent jawline. This happened because he was put on a vegetarian diet and didn’t have to exert himself during eating.

The paste-like poi required no chewing, so the mastication muscles of these dogs (also called the temporalis muscles) could not develop. The temporal fossa or the shallow depression on the side of the skull also reduced over time, making the dog’s head to appear flatter. The soft pasty poi also made this dog breed to have significantly weaker jaws and teeth.

His coat was short and features a number of different colors. In other words, you could find a Poi Dog in any color or pattern that’s common to today’s domestic dogs. However, they were most commonly seen in brown coats (also called ilio maku’e) with or without white markings.

The dog’s height was about 13-16 inches while its weight was between 15 and 35 pounds.

Generally, these unusual physical characteristics of the Poi Dog were ideal for the Hawaiian native tribes because they bred the dogs for food.

7. Poi Dogs were given different names based on their coat colors  

The Hawaiian natives gave the Poi Dog different names based on their coat colors. A red Poi Dog, for instance, was referred to as ‘īlio i‘I, a light brown breed with green eyes was called an īlio apowai while a brindle Poi Dog  ‘īlio mo‘o. Like some of today’s brindle dogs that are finding it hard to find new homes due to their color patterns, Hawaiians superstitiously looked down upon the ‘īlio mo‘os. It is also worth noting that Poi Dog is also known by other names including Hawaiian Dog, Hawaiian Islanders, Native Hawaiian Dog, Ilio, and Īlio Mākuʻe.

8. Obstinacy and laziness defined the breed

As for his temperament and character, the Poi Dog was friendly, lazy, and clumsy. Perhaps the laziness and clumsiness were a direct result of the diet of the dog that made him fat and sluggish. The dog just loved to sleep and play with the hogs on occasion. The vegetarian diet deprived him of the natural inclination to walk and run. Barking was rare.

The dog was also strong-willed, disobedient, and hard to train. His sluggishness, laziness, and unintelligent were big obstacles in training him. The Hawaiian natives apparently didn’t provide any form of training to these dogs other than basic mannerism cues and a few Asian and European immigrants who tried to train the Poi Dog found that it was totally intractable.

9. The breed behaved more like a hog than a dog

The Poi Dog was not only sluggish and unintelligent but also behaved more like pigs than dogs, especially in terms of their temperament. This is believed to have been caused by the close association of these dogs with pigs. The Poi Dog breed is said to have been quite fond of the pigs—they roamed freely with pigs, played with them, and were sometimes seen eating and sleeping with the pigs. There are also numerous accounts of how the dog formed groups with feral pigs. Poi Dog even adopted the pot-bellied appearance as well as the wadding gait of the hogs.

But why would a dog become so close to pigs and even walk, eat, and sleep with them? Well, there is a possibility that the Hawaiian tribes used dogs as some form of theft deterrent for the hogs, warning the hogs when an intruder from an enemy tribe came to steal them. However, this is just speculation as there are no recorded accounts of this.   

Unfortunately, the dogs had the same fate as the pigs they allegedly protected. They would be also be eaten by the Hawaiian natives!  

10. Poi Dog had a very low prey drive

Given that the Hawaiian Islands didn’t have many land mammals apart from the feral hogs, Poi Dogs weren’t needed for hunting. At one time, the Islands were home to several flightless bird species, but they were all hunted to extinction after the Polynesians arrived. So, basically, there was nothing for the Poi Dog to hunt. The hunting instincts of these dogs were also deliberately bred out by the Hawaiian tribes to prevent the loss of their valuable chickens and pigs that they allowed to run freely across the islands. In any case, these dogs would also make ineffective hunters as they were rather too small to tackle big game and too lazy to do anything besides eating and sleeping.

11. Poi Dogs were low-maintenance and highly adaptable dogs

Going by today’s standards, there is no such thing as a maintenance-free breed. Every dog you welcome in your home will need some attention (grooming, exercise, training, health care, etc) unless you are paying someone to take care of these needs on your behalf.

Hawaiian Poi Dogs were different—they were maintenance-free! Being short-coated, the dogs didn’t require any significant grooming routine. In fact, grooming, training, or any specialized care was not needed for these dogs as they were bred as a source of food.

Given the type of care they received, the Poi Dog breed was also very adaptable. They lived anywhere on the islands and ate anything they could find.

12. Poi Dog had a lot of health problems

Poi Dogs were often very weak, sluggish, lazy, and obese. These health issues were probably due to poor diet, malnutrition, and intense inbreeding. As aforementioned, the dogs were mainly fed Poi to fatten them. Poi is not very nutritious and doesn’t provide protein and all the nutrients that dogs need to stay healthy. There are high chances that these dogs were fed some table scraps and quite possibly trapped a few Polynesian rats as well. However, as you can guess, this would have been very occasional and small addition to these dogs’ diets—and definitely wouldn’t make up for their lack of balanced diet.

Poor diet also caused poor oral hygiene in these dogs and hampered their brain development. Due to their flat heads, Poi Dog also had breathing issues, making them lethargic in general.

13. The breed was used as a lucky charm

Besides being bred for food, the Polynesians also used the Poi Dog s as lucky charms. As aforementioned, the puppies would be killed and buried alongside a dead child to protect the kid’s spirit. The dogs were also believed to bring good fortune to their owners. In particular, the Poi Dog’s teeth were seen as luck artifacts and a wide range of charm necklaces and leg bracelets were commonly made from them.

14. Most Poi Dogs didn’t reach maximum life expectancies

On average, dogs have a lifespan of between 10 and 13 years. And some dog breeds even live longer. Small dog breeds, for instance, tend to live longer than their larger breed counterparts that tend to age faster. Being a small-sized Pariah dog breed, you would expect the Poi Dog to live for 13+ years at best. However, this was not the case. First, the Poi Dog was never bred to a standard. Secondly, they were either eaten or killed and buried when the child they were protecting died. So, a bigger percentage of the Poi Dog breeds never reached their maximum life expectancies.

15. Inter-breeding caused the extinction of the breed

In the early 19th century, the extinction of the poi dog began to take place. This is when foreigners to Hawaii came with other dogs. This led to inter-breeding which ultimately phased out the Poi Dog as an individual breed.

Basically, the dogs that the East Asian and European immigrants brought with them were stronger, larger, more active, physically capable, trainable, and more intelligent than the Poi Dog. So, as they regular interbred, the genetic uniqueness of the original Poi Dog faded away—and eventually this Pariah dog breed ceased to exist as an individual breed.

Diseases also played a significant role in the extinction of the Hawaiian Poi Dog. Diseases like rabies, parvovirus, and distemper that Asian and European immigrant dogs came with were very rare in the Hawaiian Islands and the Poi Dog probably had little or completely no exposure to them. It is believed that exposure to these diseases could have also killed a lot of the Poi Dogs.

Some people also believe that a bigger population of the Poi Dog s must have been poisoned after the arrival of the Asian and European immigrants on the Island. The newly introduced immigrant dog breeds went feral regularly due to the scarcity of land mammals to hunt on the Island and even became a threat to livestock. The natives responded by poisoning these feral dogs. It is this active poisoning effort that is believed to have killed a substantial population of dogs on the islands, including the Poi Dog.

16. Attempts to reconstruct the Poi Dog after its extinction didn’t bear fruit

Even after the Hawaiian Poi Dog became extinct, some mixed breeds from Hawaii exhibited features that were highly representative of the original poi breed. In fact, an image of one such mix went viral in the 1960s after being shared by the staff of the Mauna Loa Observatory. Nicknamed “the Phantom dog” due to its habit of raiding trash cans and disappearing into thin air, it had very many similar physical features to the original Poi Dog.

A number of canine researchers then became intrigued by the idea that the genes of the original Poi Dog probably existed in the mixed dog breeds in Hawaii. And in 1990, researchers at the Honolulu Zoo launched a breeding program with a goal of recreating the Poi Dog from other Hawaiian strays that they deemed had some genetic resemblance with the original Poi Dog. Unfortunately, their efforts didn’t yield any fruits and after 12 years, they abandoned the program. It appears the genes of the Poi Dog became too diluted over the years to be successfully restored.   

17. Modern Day Poi Dog is Different

As we highlighted in the Poi name fact, most of the mixed breeds in Hawaii today are still being called Hawaiian Poi Dog —even if they don’t have true Poi Dog ancestry! While these mixed breeds may have unique appearances, stubborn personalities, and the ability to eat anything, they should not be confused with the original Hawaiian Poi Dog. The Poi Dog breed is extinct. Well, some genetic traits of the Poi Dog like behaviors and physical characteristics might have survived but only as recessive genes and may only manifest themselves once in a while.   

Final Thoughts

The Hawaiian Poi Dogs were friendly to kids and other animals. Unfortunately, most of them didn’t live to their maximum life expectancy as they were slaughtered for food. It would be a great idea to see how this breed would have thrived if he had been given the right diet, love, and physical activity like the canines of today.

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Sable M. is a canine chef, professional pet blogger, and proud owner of two male dogs. I have been an animal lover all my life, with dogs holding a special place in my heart. Initially, I created this blog to share recipes, tips, and any relevant information on healthy homemade dog treats. But because of my unrelenting passion to make a difference in the world of dogs, I have expanded the blog’s scope to include the best information and recommendations about everything dog lovers need to know about their canine friends’ health and wellbeing. My mission now is to find the most helpful content on anything related to dogs and share it with fellow hardworking hound lovers. While everything I share is in line with the latest evidence-based veterinarian health guidelines, nothing should be construed as veterinary advice. Please contact your vet in all matters regarding your Fido’s health.