Michigan, circa 1960
A Dog's Purpose is a story about your average American boy and his not-so-average American dog. (Sorry, girls and cats. You'll have to find a different book.) To keep the story relatable, Cameron doesn't root it firmly in a specific time or place, although there are a few hints as to where Ethan's story occurs.
When Ethan goes missing on the Farm, the man who finds him says, "We've been searching the whole state of Michigan for you, son" (12.1). So we know the Farm is in Michigan. Also, young Ethan eagerly talks about space travel. He tells Bailey, "We're going to land on the moon one day, and then people will live there, too. Would you lie to be a space dog?" (6.63).
We eagerly anticipate the sequel, A Space Dog's Purpose.
Later at the Farm, the family watches the moon landing, which means that a pivotal moment in Ethan's childhood occurs in 1969. So even though Ethan, Hannah, and Bailey all sound like the names of kids who were seven years old in 1995, this part of the story takes place in the 1960s.
Depending on how old Ethan lives to be, the book's final chapters could take place about 40-50 years later, putting them around 2009 or even 2019. The book was published in 2010, so we're betting on that. However, the author never shows us any fancy technology. If Ethan has an iPad, a Roomba, or a flatscreen TV, Buddy the dog isn't interested in chewing on it.
But what about the dog's other lives? The whole reincarnation element is never fully explained. We're not sure how much time passes between each life, or if he is reborn in the same geographical location. Toby's Yard feels like a desert in nature, and the owner is called Senora. That makes us think it takes place on the Mexican border, perhaps in Arizona. And Ellie's section puts her on a police force that keeps multiple K-9 units. It feels like a big city instead of suburban or rural Michigan.
Thanks to reincarnation, the dog gets to spread happiness all over America. If only he didn't have to die to do it. How about a road trip next time? He loves riding in cars.