Puppy! Well, kinda. A lot of people are big fans of Growlithe by default because he’s the most clearly dog-inspired Pokémon in the original 151, and dog and cat people tend to blindly fawn over those pets. And that’s fine; he’s pretty cute and looks like a hard-working little pup, though his indeterminate breed, two claws, and mane-like fur tufts are all hints at a more interesting inspiration that will become clear in his evolution. For now, he’s kind of a simple fire-flavored puppy design, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.
Here we go. Arcanine is very large, very furry, and with more obvious stripes than we see as a pattern on Growlithe. He’s more clearly based (at least visually) on a Shisa – a guardian deity that’s a cross between a lion, a dog, and sometimes a tiger, and which pops up a lot as stone statues in eastern Asian countries not completely unlike how gargoyles show up in a lot in continental Europe. There’s nothing that particularly connects the Shisa to fire, though, so it would’ve been cool to take advantage of that imagery to perhaps see it manifest as a living stone statue? Its lighter tufts of fur do evoke fire, at least, and admittedly dog-lovers can’t really cuddle with a living rock as well as they can with something warm and fluffy.
Arcanine’s got a pretty good, rounded stat build that makes it good for a variety of situations, but… it’s also kind of above-average in all areas without really excelling at anything. He’s pretty set on Fire- and Normal-type moves offensively – most of his other-type moves have recoil or some other downside – and he doesn’t have a lot of great non-attack tools. Nothing obviously wrong with him, but not going to change the way you approach the game or anything
Interestingly, Growlithe seems to possibly be more popular than Arcanine. Growlithe is easier to pass off as “just” a dog Pokémon, so we see him act as a police dog and as a common pet a lot of the time, which nicely ties him more to the familiar aspects of society within this odd fantasy/soft-science-fiction world. Arcanine is also one of the first rival’s main Pokémon in the games and show, so that counts for something, and you definitely see him pop around on occasion beyond that.
Despite its physical design and even the Pokédex-declared moniker of the “Legendary Pokémon”, the majority of the game text and its portrayals elsewhere pretty much just paint it as a big ol’ domestic dog, down to time and time again hyping up how loyal and brave and clever it is and all those other words people use to shower their puppies with praise. Kind of a shame, since the Shisa inspiration offers a more unique angle, but then again there a lot of value to having a simpler “this is your dog” Pokémon among the first generation, and Vulpix already covers for the “fire canine with mythical inspiration” niche, anyway. At least some of the Pokédex entries emphasize Arcanine as “majestic” and being part of mythology in China and the East (a rare mention of real-world geology), so that’s not nothing?
Dropping any mention of fire or dogs, the Japanese name for Arcanine is a transliteration of “windy”, presumably an allusion to its run-with-the-wind speed, though it honestly feels more like a nickname you’d give one specific Arcanine rather than something you’d call the whole species. Funnily enough, his “signature move” for a short couple of years was Extreme Speed, which is a Normal-type move. On a purely Fire-type monster. Hmm. In fact, the only textual mentions of its connection to fire are that it has some manner of fire burning inside its body that fuels its power. Strong of soul and spirit, manifested quite literally – the understatement there is actually quite nice.
All in all, Growlithe and Arcanine are just kind of… there. Other Pokémon will be more interesting interpretations of domestic dogs (of domestic fire-dogs, even), it doesn’t lean very far into its mythology shtick, so what’s left is a middle-of-the-road ‘mon that people inherently like because it’s shaped like a dog. Another case where his position can be better-filled (pointing at Retire), but it’s intrinsically hard to let go of the first 151 (pointing at Reserve). I dunno, he’s just not for me, I guess.
Any and all appreciation for Growlithe and Arcanine is welcome in the comments!