The Hawaiian Poi Dog was a breed kept by the Hawaiian Islanders prior to the arrival of American colonists. The Hawaiian Poi dog was very similar in appearance, temperament, and use to a number of other breeds found throughout the Pacific, a group collectively known as Polynesian Dogs. The Hawaiian Poi Dog was quite small in size, with very short legs and a relatively long body. The breed possessed a very distinctive flattened head, which was thought to have been the result of its diet. The Hawaiian Poi Dog was primarily fed on a diet of Poi, a traditional Hawaiian food made from taro, which is how the dog earned its name. It has become common Hawaiian slang to refer to any mixed breed dog as a Poi Dog, but these animals should not be confused with the Hawaiian Poi Dog which has been extinct since the early 20th Century. The Hawaiian Poi Dog is also known as the Ilio, Poi Dog, Hawaiian Dog, Native Hawaiian Dog, and Hawaiian Islanders’ Dog.
The Hawaiian Poi Dog arrived first arrived in the Hawaiian Islands with the first Polynesian settlers, who first arrived on Hawaii’s shores sometime between 300 and 800 A.D. The Hawaiian Poi Dog was a distinctive variety of Polynesian Dog, a group of breeds and landraces found throughout the Pacific Ocean’s more than 20,000 islands. This group was typified by a suite of primitive characteristics, such as wolf or fox-like bodies, prick ears, and training difficulty. Although Polynesian Dogs likely factor heavily into the genetic makeup of mixed breed dogs throughout the Pacific, it is widely believed that they are now entirely extinct as a purebred type. The Hawaiian Poi Dog is one of the two best known Polynesian Dogs, along with the very similar Kuri of New Zealand.
The Polynesian Dogs were very similar to the earliest domesticated dogs, and can almost certainly trace their origins back to them. There is substantial debate as to when, where, and how the dog was first domesticated. Although some still maintain that it happened as recently as 7,000 years ago, the vast majority of experts now agree that the dog was the first species to be domesticated by man, and that the process was complete by 14,000 years ago at the latest. However, there is a growing collection of evidence from around the world that strongly suggests that the dog was fully domesticated by 30,000 years ago and this date is becoming increasingly accepted. Some geneticists believe that the domestication process may even have begun 100,000 years ago, but that date is not supported by archaeological evidence. For many centuries, it has been assumed that the Gray Wolf was the direct ancestor of the domestic dog, although it was unclear of other species such as the Jackal or Dhole figured into its genetic makeup as well. Genetic testing has confirmed that the old suspicion was correct, and that the domestic dog is solely descended from the Gray Wolf (or possibly the Indian and/or Tibetan Wolves which may or may not be separate species). These same tests have concluded that all dogs are descended from a very small group of wolves that were domesticated in either one or two events. There remains substantial dispute as to where this occurred but it was almost certainly somewhere in the Middle East, India, Tibet, or China, where the wolves are substantially smaller, less aggressive, and more accepting of the presence of humans than those found elsewhere in the world.
Before the dog was domesticated, man possessed no other tame creatures to assist him, and the dog began to serve a wide variety of purposes. At the time, all of humanity lived as nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, grouped into bands ranging in size between a single family and several hundred people. These bands found that the keen senses of the dog almost perfectly complimented their own, and that the social structure it inherited from the wolf allowed it to form similar relationships with humans. Hunter-gatherers used their dogs as camp guardians, watch dogs, hunting aids, companions, beasts of burden, and occasionally a readily available food source. Dogs proved so useful and adaptable that they quickly spread across the world, eventually coming to live everywhere inhabited by human beings other than a few remote islands. In fact, dogs allowed people to spread into a number of challenging environments such as the Arctic that may very well have been uninhabitable without them. Part of the adaptability of the dog likely was the result of crosses with wolves. All dogs and all wolves can freely interbreed to produce fertile offspring, and they have periodically done so everywhere where the two animals have lived together. The first dogs were very similar to the wolf in most aspects, and were probably indistinguishable from the Australian Dingo and New Guinea Singing Dog.
During the Ice Ages, so much water was locked away in the glaciers and ice caps that the sea level was hundreds of feet lower than it is today. This exposed vast tracts of land that are now beneath the waves. So much land was exposed that the island of Taiwan was once connected to Mainland Asia, allowing humans to walk there to settle. The first groups to arrive there did so sometime between 20,000 and 30,000 years ago, and they almost certainly brought their dogs with them. Although it is impossible to say exactly what the dogs of the first Indigenous Taiwanese looked like, they were almost certainly very similar to the Spitz-type dogs found throughout East Asia such as the Shiba Inu, Akita Inu, and Chow Chow.
Between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago, human beings first settled Australia and New Guinea, although the means by which they did so has been long disputed. These early settlers did not possess dogs, but they acquired them from the sea faring peoples of the Indonesian Archipelago sometime later. The many tribes of Australia and New Guinea allowed their dogs to run feral, and they eventually reverted to an almost entirely wild state, becoming the Dingo and New Guinea Singing Dog respectively. These dogs remained the most primitive of all domestic breeds, and some actually classify them as a separate subspecies.
After centuries of living on the Pacific’s shores, the inhabitants of both ancient Taiwan and New Guinea became very adept seafarers, perhaps the greatest in the ancient world. Armed only with a map of the stars in their heads and a deep cultural knowledge of winds and currents, these bold travelers embarked across the Earth’s largest ocean, discovering and settling island after island. The only domestic animals that they brought with them were the dog, the chicken, and the pig, although the Polynesian of Pacific Rat was such a common stowaway that it became almost as widespread as humans. These were not only some of the only species available to them; they were some of the only ones capable of surviving long voyages on tiny wooden craft. Although the exact process and timeline are unclear, at some point the Taiwanese and New Guinean seafarers crossed paths in the Western Pacific. They traded crops, technologies, ideas, and genes, eventually giving rise to a number of new cultures, including that of the Polynesians. It is almost certain that they also interbred their dogs, leaving the Polynesians with animals that were somewhere between the Spitzen of East Asia and the semi-wild dogs of New Guinea and Australia.
The Polynesians became even more accomplished oceanic voyagers than their ancestors, eventually discovering and settling on the remotest islands on earth. They brought their dogs with them to almost all of these islands where they were became highly valued. These dogs had to adapt to life in the Pacific. Although the islands of the Pacific seem like a heavenly paradise to most modern viewers, most are actually very challenging to live on. The small area means that there are very few resources on which to survive, so the Polynesian dogs shrank dramatically in size, eventually becoming the same size as a European fox. The only land vertebrates native to the Pacific are bats, birds, reptiles, and the four species introduced by man meaning that there was very little for dogs to hunt. Polynesian dogs eventually lost most of their hunting ability as a result. Since these dogs had to live in very close contact with humans, they became much more sociable than their primitive ancestors. Although travel occasionally occurred between islands, the canine populations of most were very isolated. This led to a substantial amount of inbreeding and genetic drift, and eventually hundreds of similar but distinct varieties of Polynesian Dog came to exist on different island chains.
There is substantial debate as to whether Hawaii was colonized in a single event, two different occurrences, or in a long period of settlement. There is also a dispute as to whether the first Hawaiians set sail from Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands, or both. This would mean that the Hawaiian Poi Dog is descended from the animals in those same chains. It also means that only a very small number of dogs were ever introduced to Hawaii, leading to a very small genetic pool which would have increased little over the centuries as a very occasional dog arrived from other islands.
At one time Hawaii was home to a number of flightless bird species, but most of these were hunted to extinction shortly after the arrival of the Polynesians. This meant that there was nothing for their dogs to hunt. Because there were no major land predators, the ancient Hawaiians allowed all three of their domestic species to run freely across the islands. The hunting instinct of the Hawaiian Poi Dog was probably deliberately bred out by the Hawaiians to reduce the loss of valuable chickens and pigs, although the breed was almost certainly too small to tackle a pig anyways. In fact, the Hawaiian Poi Dog was apparently quite fond of the pigs, and numerous accounts detail how it would roam freely with them. The breed supposedly formed groups with the feral pigs, and was said to act more pig-like than dog-like. It is possible that the Hawaiian Poi Dog acted as a type of theft deterrent, warning the pigs when a raider from an enemy tribe came to steal them, but there do not seem to be any records of this.
Because the Hawaiians had no use for a hunting or herding dog, they primarily kept the Poi Dog for four reasons, food, religion, good luck, and companionship. The Hawaiian Poi Dog was considered a delicacy to the Hawaiian people, who were very fond of its meat. Meat of any kind was a rare treat for the Hawaiian people, and dogs were seldom eaten other than at feasts. Most feasts had religious or political implications, and some tribes treated the Hawaiian Poi Dog as highly religiously significant. At various point in Hawaii’s history, it was forbidden for women to eat dog meat, which was reserved exclusively for the men. However, that was not the case at all times and when Hawaii was formally annexed by the United States it ceased to be the case. The dog also may have been used as a religious sacrifice as was the case elsewhere in Polynesia, but this is less clear. Hawaiian Poi Dogs were also seen as a good luck charm, bringing good fortune to their owners. The breed’s teeth in particular were seen as lucky, and charm necklaces were commonly made from them.
Because meat was so rare in Hawaii, the Hawaiian people could not spare any for their dogs. Instead, they fed their dogs Poi, a common Polynesian dish made from ground up roots and tubers of the Taro plant, known in Hawaii as the Kalo. Because the breed was fed almost exclusively on Poi, it became known as the Hawaiian Poi Dog. Poi is either liquid or dough-like when it is consumed depending on the maker’s preferences. Poi is not especially nutritious, and in any case does not provide the meat that dogs need in their diets to stay healthy. As a result, the Hawaiian Poi Dog almost certainly developed a number of health problems due to its diet. Most descriptions of the breed say that it was lazy, slow moving, and unintelligent. All of these are very likely side effects of malnutrition and a poor diet. The Hawaiian Poi Dog may have had such a poor diet that it was completely lacking in energy, and its mental development may have been hampered by a lack of protein. It is very likely that the Hawaiian Poi Dog was also fed some table scraps and quite possibly trapped Polynesian Rats as well. However, these would have been occasional and small additions to the Hawaiian Poi Dog’s diet at best, and almost certainly would not have made up its general lack of good nutrition. In much of the world, dogs such as the Hawaiian Poi Dog would have been able to supplement their diets with small animals that they were able to kill themselves, but there were none available for the Hawaiian Poi Dog to find. Poi is a very soft food and requires little to no chewing. Because of this, the Hawaiian Poi Dog did not need powerful jaws. It is almost universally theorized that the unique flat head of the breed was the result of jaw and jaw muscle atrophy due to a poi heavy diet.
Hawaiians quite obviously were very fond of their Poi Dogs, and many were treated as pets. It was a very common practice for Hawaiians to give one of their very young children a puppy. This puppy was raised alongside the child, and was even breast fed at the same time. The two were constant playmates and were almost always in each others’ company. If the child died before the dog, the dog would be killed and the two would be buried next to each other. If the dog died before the child, a necklace would be made out of its teeth. It is important to note that the sentiment that the Polynesians felt for their dogs was tempered by the necessities of survival in a harsh world, the same dogs that were beloved children’s pets would often end up as a meal.
The Hawaiian Poi dog probably changed very little from the time it arrived in the Hawaiian Islands until the arrival of Europeans over 1,000 years later. The breed probably did shrink somewhat in size over time, as well as having its head gradually flattened, but this was likely the result of poor nutrition. It is very possible that Spanish and Portuguese sailors were the first Westerners to reach the islands, a theory supported by a few maps and charts. But it was not until the British naval man Captain James Cook thoroughly charted the Pacific that Europeans began to arrive in Hawaii in large numbers (although Cook himself was killed by the Hawaiian Islanders). Starting in the 19th Century, a sizable number of European and American settlers began to arrive in Hawaii, with the intention of running plantations. They often forced the natives into a form of servitude, as well as bringing in indentured labor from East Asia. The traditional Hawaiian way of life was permanently impacted, and the old ways which had heavily involved the Poi Dog began to disappear. Christianity began to replace the native Hawaiian religion and the feasts that had accompanied it. Hawaiians did continue to eat dog meat as a delicacy, and it was highly prized as a food source well into the 20th Century. In fact, Hawaiian tenants often raised dogs specifically to use as payment to their landlords, and the practice was surprisingly common. However, European and Americans were often quite aghast at the thought of consuming dog meat and began to highly discourage the practice.
Both the European and East Asian immigrants brought dogs from their homelands to Hawaii, most of which were substantially larger, stronger, more physically capable, and more intelligent and trainable than the Hawaiian Poi Dog. Almost all accounts given by European and American sources on the Hawaiian Poi Dog were highly derogatory, especially when it was compared to their own breeds. These more capable dogs began to regularly interbreed with the Hawaiian Poi Dog, and it began to lose its genetic uniqueness. By the turn of the 20th Century, there were very few Hawaiian Poi Dogs left, and the breed was almost certainly extinct as a unique breed by the 1930’s. Although it is rarely mentioned, disease almost certainly played a role in the disappearance of the Hawaiian Poi Dog as well. European and American dogs were often afflicted by a variety of conditions such as rabies, distemper and parvovirus. Such diseases are very rare on isolated islands with small populations and the Hawaiian Poi Dog probably had little or no exposure to them. Such diseases would have caused an epidemic among the unexposed Hawaiian Poi Dogs and killed many of them. Another potential factor in the disappearance of the Hawaiian Poi Dog was poisoning. That breed rarely went feral as there was almost nothing for it to eat. The newly introduced European breeds did regularly, and they became a threat to livestock. Beginning in the 1920’s, active efforts were made to poison these feral dogs. These poisoning efforts killed a large number of dogs, probably including a substantial number of Hawaiian Poi Dogs, if any still existed at the time.
Because so many European breeds were crossed with Poi Dogs, Hawaiians began calling any mixed-breed dog a Poi Dog, whether it truly had any Poi Dog ancestry or not. This usage of the term Poi Dog has continued until the present day, and is sometimes also applied to persons of mixed Hawaiian heritage. Modern day Poi Dogs should not be confused with the original Poi Dog, which is surely extinct, although they may in fact be partially descended from the true Hawaiian Poi Dog.
Some mixed breed dogs from Hawaii do exhibit a number of traits that are highly representative of the original Hawaiian Poi Dog. One such dog became particularly famous in the 1960’s. It was frequently seen by the staff of the Mauna Loa Observatory in the 1960’s, who named it, “The Phantom Dog,” due to its habit of appearing seemingly out of nowhere to raid trash cans and then disappearing from whence it came. Photographs of this animal confirmed it was very similar to the original Hawaiian Poi Dog, and a number of researchers became intrigued by the possibility that the breed still might exist in the mixed breed population of Hawaii. In 1990, the Honolulu Zoo initiated a breeding program with the goal of resurrecting the Hawaiian Poi Dog. They used mixed breed dogs that most closely resembled the Hawaiian Poi Dog in an attempt to restore the breed. 12 years later little to no progress had been made and the attempt was formally abandoned. This failure may be evidence that the genes of the breed have become too diluted to be restored.
The Hawaiian Poi Dog was very similar in appearance to other Polynesian Dogs such as the Kuri of New Zealand, and less so to other primitive breeds from around the world. The dog had very short legs and stood very low to the ground, usually between 13 and 16 inches tall at the shoulders. The breed had a comparatively long body, much like that of a Corgi. The breed was said to be quite fat, with a distended belly, but that was probably the result of deliberate overfeeding and poor nutrition. The head of the breed was probably its most defining feature. It was very flat, and almost completely devoid of a stop. It is very probable that this was the result of the jaws and jaw muscles of the breed atrophying over time as a response to an easy to chew diet. As one would expect of a tropical dog, the Hawaiian Poi Dog had a very short coat that was probably smooth in texture. The breed was said to be found in any color or pattern common to domestic dogs, but was most commonly seen in brown with or without white markings.
The Hawaiian Poi Dog was said to be quite affectionate. In particular, the breed was very fond of children with whom it was often raised. The dog was known to be very playful; although it was often too slow moving to catch what was thrown to it. The breed regularly was found in the vicinity of the village’s pigs, with which it formed close bonds. Many have described the breed as being more like a pig than a dog in terms of temperament. The dog was apparently very lethargic and lazy, with a very low energy level. This may have been a result of breeding, poor diet, or both. The Hawaiian Poi Dog apparently had a very low prey drive, although it may have occasionally hunted rats and small birds. The breed was said to be unintelligent, and completely lacking in drive. Again it is unclear if these traits were the result of genetics or diet. The Hawaiians apparently provided no training for their dogs other than basic manners, and the few Europeans who tried to train the Hawaiian Poi Dog found that it was almost completely intractable.
The Hawaiian Poi Dog apparently suffered from a wide range of health problems. These problems were probably the result of poor diet, malnutrition, and heavy inbreeding. The breed was often very weak, tired, lazy, and obese, as well as having very poor teeth.