The Hawaiian Poi Dog: A Lost Breed & Its Unique Diet

Human and dog history runs parallel, and sadly, many dog breeds didn’t make it to the modern day. The rotund, mild Hawaiian Poi is one of those, having gone extinct around the early 20th century. A few surviving paintings are the closest we have to a picture of what the Poi looked like, but we know they had short fur in many colors, with big bellies and very short legs.

We don’t know a lot about the Hawaiian Poi because they only lived in Hawaii and lived a very different life from our beloved dogs, but some knowledge has survived. Let’s delve into a bit about what we do know just down below.


Did you know there was once a dog breed in Hawaii that ate a special diet of…poi? That’s right, their very name, the Hawaiian Poi Dog, reflects this unique relationship with the traditional Hawaiian food. Sadly, these gentle dogs are no longer with us, but their story is a fascinating tale.

What is a Hawaiian Poi Dog?

The Hawaiian Poi Dog (or ʻīlio) was a distinct breed of dog native to the Hawaiian Islands. These pups were believed to have descended from Polynesian dogs brought over around 1,000 years ago. Unlike dogs we’re used to today, they served both as companions and a food source in traditional Hawaiian culture.

History of the Hawaiian Poi Dog

Polynesian Roots and Arrival in Hawaii

Centuries ago, when Polynesian explorers navigated the vast Pacific, venturing to new islands, their canine friends were often by their sides. We believe these dogs are the ancestors of the Hawaiian Poi Dog. Just imagine them aboard ancient canoes, setting paw on the lush Hawaiian Islands for the first time!

Polynesian canoe with dog aboard
Illustrating images: Polynesian canoe with dog aboard

A Unique Place in Hawaiian Culture

The Hawaiian Poi Dog quickly became woven into the fabric of Hawaiian life. While companionship was important, these dogs held a unique purpose. They were fed a diet primarily of poi, a starchy paste made from pounded taro root. Over time, this led to interesting physical changes in the breed.

Taro field, with poi
Illustrating images: Taro field, with poi

The Hawaiian Poi Dog also played a role in ceremonies or spiritual practices, though exact details can be lost to history. Some stories suggest they acted as protectors of children. They were undoubtedly valued members of Hawaiian families.

Uniquely Hawaiian Diet and Potential Impact

Traditional Hawaiian Diet

To understand the Hawaiian Poi Dog, we need to picture the diet of its human companions. Traditional Hawaiian cuisine revolved around staples like taro (kalo), sweet potato, fish, and of course, poi. Poi is made by steaming and mashing taro root into a thick paste. It’s a little starchy and can have a slightly sweet and tangy flavor.

The Poi Dog’s Diet and Physical Adaptations

Unlike dogs today, who munch on kibble and treats, the Hawaiian Poi Dog’s diet consisted mostly of poi! This starchy diet is believed to have softened their jaws and contributed to their rounded body shape. Historical accounts describe them as having large bellies and short legs. Some even suggest their unique diet made them less likely to bark – quieter companions, perhaps?

Potential Health Benefits of a Poi Diet

While we might raise an eyebrow at a dog eating mainly poi, it’s worth exploring possible health aspects. Poi is rich in fiber and contains good bacteria, making it a prebiotic food that supports gut health. Could this have given Hawaiian Poi Dogs hardy digestion? It’s certainly an interesting question! Poi also contains vitamins and minerals, providing some nutritional benefits.

Characteristics of the Hawaiian Poi Dog

Physical Appearance

Sadly, since the Hawaiian Poi Dog is extinct, we have to rely on historical accounts and artistic depictions to piece together their appearance. These dogs were generally described as small to medium-sized with short legs and a somewhat rounded body, likely due to their unique poi diet. They had short, smooth coats that could come in various colors, but brown was particularly common. Some reports describe them as having large heads with wide-set eyes and floppy ears that gave them a gentle expression.

Temperament and Behavior

Like their appearance, much of what we know about the personality of Hawaiian Poi Dogs comes from historical accounts. They were generally described as friendly and good-natured, making them valued companions in their families. Some reports suggest they were relatively quiet dogs, possibly due to their softened jaws.

However, being historically fed a mostly vegetarian diet might not have made them the best hunters or guard dogs. It’s also said they had a tendency to wander and could sometimes be mischievous! Imagine a mischievous pup with a belly full of poi – a bit of a comical image, isn’t it?

Reasons for the Extinction of the Hawaiian Poi Dog

Disease Introduction

One of the most significant factors in the extinction of the Hawaiian Poi Dog was the introduction of diseases by European and American visitors to the islands. Dogs native to Hawaii had never been exposed to many of these diseases and sadly lacked the immunity to fight them off. This tragically led to a widespread decline in their population.

Loss of Habitat and Cultural Shift

As Hawaii modernized and Western influences grew stronger, there were significant changes to traditional ways of life. The reliance on foods like poi decreased. This meant fewer Poi Dogs were deliberately bred, and their role within Hawaiian families started to change. Shifts in land use likely reduced the areas where they could roam and thrive.

Breeding Practices and Outbreeding

The Hawaiian Poi Dog was never a formally standardized breed like we see today with Labrador Retrievers or German Shepherds. When European dog breeds were introduced to Hawaii, it’s very likely that interbreeding occurred. While this might sound like a good thing, it actually meant the purebred Hawaiian Poi Dog genes were diluted, eventually disappearing altogether.

A Speculative Look: The Perfect Storm

It’s probable that a combination of these factors worked together to create a disastrous situation for the Hawaiian Poi Dog. Disease weakened the population, cultural changes reduced their importance, and interbreeding with other dogs essentially erased the original breed. Sadly, there also weren’t any dedicated efforts to preserve the Hawaiian Poi Dog. It’s a heartbreaking example of how quickly unique animal breeds can vanish.

The Legacy of the Hawaiian Poi Dog

Cultural Significance

Even though the purebred Hawaiian Poi Dog is gone, its memory lives on as an important aspect of Hawaiian history and culture. These dogs were woven into the fabric of island life, from their role in traditional diets to possible participation in spiritual practices. We can find depictions of Poi Dogs in ancient Hawaiian art and even references to them in traditional stories and chants.

Example of Hawaiian art featuring dogs
Illustrating images: Example of Hawaiian art featuring dogs

Modern Connections

The story of the Hawaiian Poi Dog is still told and remembered today. It often appears in books and articles exploring Hawaiian history. Some contemporary Hawaiian artists and writers continue to be inspired by them, using the breed as a symbol of tradition and a connection to the past. Their unique story also serves as an important reminder of the fragility of traditional cultures and the importance of preserving biodiversity.

Efforts to Revive the Breed

There’s also been some discussion about potentially trying to revive the Hawaiian Poi Dog. This would involve careful breeding of mixed-breed dogs in Hawaii that might carry some Poi Dog ancestry. However, such a project raises ethical considerations. Could a recreated breed ever truly be the same? Some people believe it’s best to honor the memory of the Hawaiian Poi Dog as a historical breed and focus on protecting existing dog breeds.


The story of the Hawaiian Poi Dog is both fascinating and bittersweet. It gives us a glimpse into a different era of Hawaiian life and a unique dog breed shaped by its environment and culture. While their extinction is a loss, the Hawaiian Poi Dog reminds us of the importance of preserving biodiversity and the delicate balance between human traditions and the natural world.


Could any health issues be linked to the Hawaiian Poi Dog’s unique diet?

It’s a fascinating question! A diet primarily consisting of poi could have had both positive and negative health effects. Poi’s prebiotic properties may have supported gut health. However, a lack of dietary diversity could have led to deficiencies in certain vitamins, minerals, or essential fatty acids. It’s also possible that some dogs might have developed digestive issues or allergies related to a poi-heavy diet. Unfortunately, limited historical records make it difficult to definitively assess the full health impact of this unique diet.

Were Hawaiian Poi Dogs considered good with children?

Historical accounts suggest Hawaiian Poi Dogs were generally friendly and gentle, making them well-suited for family life. Their role within Hawaiian families likely included interacting with children. However, it’s important to remember that every dog is an individual. While the breed may have had a generally good temperament, proper supervision, and training are essential when any dog interacts with children, just as it is today.

Does the term ‘Poi Dog’ have any cultural significance beyond its literal meaning?

It’s possible, though there’s limited definitive evidence. Researching Hawaiian proverbs, traditional stories, or chants might reveal metaphorical references to ‘Poi Dogs’ that hint at symbolic meanings. We might discover they symbolized loyalty, companionship, or even a connection to ancestors. Unfortunately, some of this cultural context might be lost to history.

What other extinct dog breeds are similar to the Hawaiian Poi Dog?

Sadly, several Polynesian dog breeds that likely shared a common origin with the Hawaiian Poi Dog are also extinct. These include the Kurī from New Zealand and the Marquesan Dog. Some extinct breeds from other regions, like the Tahitian Dog, may have served similar roles in their respective societies.

How did the introduction of new dog breeds contribute to the extinction of the Hawaiian Poi Dog?

The arrival of European and American dog breeds led to interbreeding with the Hawaiian Poi Dog. Since they weren’t a formally bred breed with a dedicated breeding program, this intermixing gradually diluted the purebred Hawaiian Poi Dog gene pool until it was effectively lost.

Were attempts made to preserve the Hawaiian Poi Dog before it went extinct?

Unfortunately, there’s no clear record of any organized efforts to preserve the breed. This might be due to a lack of formal dog breeding practices in Hawaii at the time, and changes in cultural practices may have reduced the breed’s perceived importance.

Are there efforts to identify dogs in Hawaii with the highest percentage of potential Poi Dog ancestry?

It’s possible! With advances in DNA analysis, some individuals might be investigating whether mixed-breed dogs in Hawaii carry traces of Hawaiian Poi Dog ancestry. Such a project would be fascinating but complex, as it requires identifying specific genetic markers unique to the extinct breed.

Did the Hawaiian Poi Dog’s appearance change over time due to its diet and environment?

It’s certainly possible! Their unique poi-based diet could have caused physical changes like their rounded bellies and potentially softer jaws. Over time, Hawaiian Poi Dogs might have adapted to their island environment, though identifying these specific changes is challenging without extensive historical records or skeletal remains.

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