Rescue Me

The Pound Puppies Saga: How These Plush Toys Hooked Us & Now Our Kids

These beloved ‘80s toys sure knew how to tug on the heartstrings.

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Geriatric millennials (sorry) spent their childhoods coveting everything from Barbie dolls to Teddy Ruxpins. We loved them; we had to have them. So, because we’re nostalgic like that, we wanted to take a look back at some of our most beloved, extremely popular ‘80s and ‘90s toys and explore why we obsessed over them and where they are now. We turned to veteran toy expert Jessica Hartshorn, who has spent her career writing about all things parenting and toys, to do her due diligence and get to the bottom of some of our most-wished-for favorites. Behold, Scary Mommy’s nostalgia & toys extravaganza. All week, we’ll be looking at the toys that made us. You’re welcome.

Twenty years before a sad Sarah McLachlan tune played over images of pets needing rescue at the ASPCA — commercials so brutal that even McLachlan can’t watch them — I was a total sucker for Pound Puppies. They were the pandemic dogs before there was a pandemic. The plush canines did nothing, mind you. Like with surprise toys, the whole point was just to get them.

Truthfully I am still a sucker for commercials. You say a vacuum will clean my house while I sleep? I must have it! But one of the first commercials I can remember watching and responding to was this one below, imploring children to love Pound Puppies. I heard it, and I asked Santa for one.

Pound Puppies need to be rescued!

How Pound Puppies Hooked Us

Mike Bowling, who’d spent nearly two decades working on a Ford auto assembly line, got the idea for the stuffed animals after he gifted his daughter a handcrafted toy one holiday season. The idea was picked up by Irwin Toy, and Pound Puppies debuted in the mid-’80s just after Cabbage Patch Kids taught us that dolls could be legal-ishly adopted. They became an immediate hit.

So we’d already been trained to think we were not so much buying toys as saving them from orphanhood. And yes, Pound Puppies, too, came with an adoption certificate. I got the gray one, made by Tonka at the time. TBH I don’t remember giving it a name or particularly loving it. I was and still am a cat person. But I do recall feeling relieved that I got it. And I released it from the sad little doghouse it was packaged in! Who knows what my child brain thought was going to happen if I didn’t?

An original Pound Puppy, from Tonka

Ebay

Hardees (& Television) Got In On The Act

Any child who didn’t fall for that basic phishing scheme of a commercial, like I did, may have had parents who got hooked by the second Pound Puppy bait, which was Hardee’s (yes, the fast-food restaurant) selling tiny plush Pound Puppies. They weren’t given out with kid meals, but parents who bought a sandwich, fries, and a drink could then also buy a tiny Pound Puppy for a couple of bucks and throw it in the Christmas stocking. So, in this case, the devious commercials were playing with our parents’ hearts.

Hardee’s Pound Puppy commercial

Then, like My Little Pony and Care Bears, Pound Puppies got a cartoon. It, too, endlessly harped on the fact that puppies need a home. The show only lasted two seasons, in 1986 and 1987. By then, you would imagine that every child in America had adopted a Pound Puppy one way or another. No matter, new kids are always being born, and the sad-eyed puppies continued to sell well into the '90s and early aughts.

Purebred, But Still Pound Puppies

According to the history of Pound Puppies, the inventor, Mike Bowling, held on to the intellectual property rights for Pound Puppies all the way until 2011. Starting in 2014, they were made by Funrise toys, which put them out as specific breeds, including beagles, poodles, and labradors. The manipulative commercials still insisted that the toys were "sad and lonely" and in need of adoption. See what I mean here.

A 2014 Pound Puppy commercial

In 2016, Bowling guesstimated that some 200 million Pound Puppies had been sold over the course of 30 years.

Pound Puppies Are Still Out Now

Currently, my gray puppy is back in a retro-chic line of Original Pound Puppies made by Basic Fun. He’s got some brown spots and a brown nose now, along with a red collar. But I still recognize him!

Basic Fun grey Pound Puppy

Basic Fun

And I recognize the sales pitch. Basicfun.com says: “These classic Pound Puppies are looking for a loving home! They need someone to adopt them and love them, and have been waiting for someone like you to choose them as your very own pet.”

Ah, don’t I know it.