Mike Bowling had spent nearly 20 years working on a Ford automobile assembly line in Cincinnati, Ohio, never once thinking about inventing toys. During the 1983 holiday season, he bought his daughter a handcrafted doll that she took everywhere and doted on like it was her baby sister. Soon, inventing a toy—one that could be produced with the same efficiency as the cars rolling out of the factory—was all he could think about.
Well over a decade before Beanie Babies caused pandemonium, Bowling issued tiny, pellet-stuffed creatures of his own dubbed Pound Puppies. With droopy ears and wide, expressive eyes, they came in cardboard “crates” and with adoption papers. Despite a total lack of experience in the highly competitive world of kid products, Bowling took his idea and turned it into a brand that would go on to gross hundreds of millions in sales and make TIME magazine’s list of the world’s top 100 toys.
Because he knew virtually nothing about toy development, Bowling first contacted an intellectual property lawyer, who told him that registering trademarks and filing for patents would help protect his ideas. He went to one designer to have his Pound Puppies template sketched out and another to fabricate the cardboard box that doubled as a carrier.
Armed with a plan and mock-ups, Bowling was swiftly turned down by 14 different companies. One executive huffed that the Puppies were the ugliest things he'd ever seen.
Bowling’s persistence eventually landed him an audience with Irwin Toy, a distributor based in Canada that was still reeling from a partnership with Atari that had recently gone south; the video game craze, which was about to be reignited by Nintendo, had collapsed in a heap and left vendors with piles of unsold cartridges. Eager for a low-risk opportunity, they licensed the Pound Puppies and released them in Canada in 1984.
They were an immediate hit. As Bowling had predicted, children who wanted to nurture something adorable and parents who weren’t inclined to scoop dog poop found a perfect compromise in his plush animals, which came complete with a mock care guide. Walking and exercise were stressed; caregivers were advised that their chosen puppy had “had all the shots they need to stay healthy.” A bath was also recommended. Fortunately, the animals were machine-washable.
By December 1985, Tonka—like Irwin, a company that had been scorched by an ill-fated partnership with a video game company named Sega—was convinced Bowling was on to something, and brought the plush animals to the U.S. The Puppies were selling out across the country, creating a frenzy that had been rivaled in recent memory only by the Cabbage Patch Kids. In 1985, more than 2.5 million puppies were sold at the inflated retail price of $30. If kids wanted stickers and a personalized dog tag, Tonka would mail them both for an extra $3.50.
Like any respectable ‘80s toy craze, Pound Puppies were also awarded their own animated series, which premiered on ABC in the fall of 1986. At the “Wagga Wagga Pound,” a cast of endearing dogs awaited their turn for adoption. Nancy Cartwright, who would soon after become the voice of Bart Simpson, played Bright Eyes. Another one of the dogs was named Whopper, a strange choice considering the Puppies were usually found as a promotional item at Hardee’s. He was a golden retriever who wore a diaper.
As with any retail phenomenon, toy pundits predicted a short shelf life for the Puppies. And while they did eventually fade, it took several years and more than $300 million in sales before kids moved on to other obsessions. Their expected successor, a line of saggy plush dogs dubbed Wrinkles produced by Canadian toy company Ganz, failed to break through.
In 2011, Bowling sold the Pound Puppies IP to Hasbro for an undisclosed sum. Having long since retired from the Ford assembly line, he continues to brainstorm new toy ideas, including a line of plastic mermaids dubbed Splashlings. While they may catch on, it will be difficult to match the success Bowling had in marketing the idea of an imaginary dog adoption. In 2016, the inventor estimated more than 200 million Pound Puppies have been sold—nearly three times as many as there are actual dogs in the United States.