The Hawaiian poi dog became famous in history as a protector of children and as a delicacy for the male natives of Hawaii. As times changed, the breed became extinct.
The dogs, along with hogs, were brought to Hawaii with the first Polynesian settlers between 300 and 800 AD. The island did not have large land mammals so the poi dogs were not needed for herding or hunting. Instead, they lived among the tribes as companions, were spiritual protectors of the children, and were also a source of food for the natives.
A puppy was often given to an infant at birth, and there are accounts of the baby and the puppy being breastfed together, which they believed would give the dog more protective instincts. If a child died before the dog, the dog would be killed and buried with the child's body. If the child out-lived the dog, a necklace would be made of the dog's teeth as a good luck charm for the child.
The Hawaiian poi dog got its name from poi, a common Hawaiian food made from fermented and pounded taro roots. Because meat was too valuable to be used as dog food, the dogs were fed poi. The starchy diet caused a number of health problems. It caused the dogs to become fat with distended bellies, lazy, clumsy and not very smart. They were friendly and liked to play with the children, but they were slow and would run out of energy quickly. They seldom barked and were often found waddling around with the hogs. The dogs were malnourished mainly due to the lack of protein in their diet, and it is believed their heads became flat over the years because the pasty poi did not require strong jaw muscles for chewing.
The people were fond of their dogs, but they saw no wrongdoing making a meal out of them like they would with their hogs. The meat of the poi dog was actually considered a delicacy and would be eaten at feasts and religious festivals, but only the men were allowed to consume the meat.
By the early 20th century, the breed became extinct as the native religion was abandoned and eating dog meat was looked down on from missionaries and other westerners. The Hawaiian poi dogs began to breed with dogs of European settlers and were gradually displaced by cross breeds.
In the 1960s, a dog that closely resembled the poi dog created enough interest to try and revive the breed by the Honolulu Zoo. After 12 years, the attempt was deemed a failure and the program was discontinued.