What I Learned on My Summer Vacation

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In honor of the 100th anniversary of our National Park Service, my husband and I decided to rent an RV and take our three dogs on a road trip to Yellowstone, stopping at several sites along the way. Needless to say, there was never a dull moment. However, despite all the craziness inherent in first-time RV travel, I had many personal epiphanies, as I ventured into the “wilderness” (we stayed at campgrounds, omg!) and I thought I would share some of my insights with you.

Here are just a few:

Go Naked. Well, not literally.  As the saying goes, “the ability to accessorize is what separates us from animals.”  To me, going naked means wearing no make-up, jewelry, or cute shoes. Okay, I admit, I couldn’t go cold turkey. I did use mascara and lip gloss. But that was HUGE for me. Even stranger still, I wore no jewelry. My ears went completely unadorned for 9 days. I had no watch. My watch is as ubiquitous to me as Wonder Woman’s gold cuffs are to her. I FEEL naked without it. I applaud all of you lovely ladies au natural, who face each day fresh-faced and free of bangles and baubles. I wish I were one of you. Who knows, maybe there’s hope for me yet. I’m a firm believer in the theory that it’s NEVER too late to change.

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Tune Out Social Media. It’s a blessing in disguise, for die-hards such as me if I can’t get service at my destination. Facebook is a hard habit to break. I not only work in social media, but I’m a devoted Instagrammer personally. It killed me not to be able to post photos of all the beautiful, interesting things I saw. But guess what? I not only survived, I truly lived in the moment.

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Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

Stay Active or Atrophy. As I climbed the wooden steps to the top of Mammoth Springs, I literally fell over when I stopped to tie my shoe. I got dizzy looking at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I was winded and my heart pounded as I climbed the slightest incline. I absolutely swear, an older lady with an oxygen tank kept pace with me on the path to Devil’s Tower. No lie. This was a huge eye-opener for me that sitting at a desk all day, gardening on the weekends, and walking my dogs every night were not going to cut it as I age. Now that I’m home, I need to develop a serious exercise regimen that pushes me harder.

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Sacred Smoke Sculpture at Devil’s Tower

Take Notes. I have kept a journal almost every day since the first grade, when I learned to write. But on vacations, much to my horror, I get home and find blank pages where all the interesting people, places and adventures should be. It’s the little, odd, unexpected things that spontaneously happen to you on vacation, that really make the trip. So take a notebook. A simple wide-lined, spiral-bound will do. I kept mine handy so any time I had a spare moment I would jot down a couple of key phrases, just enough to jog my memory once the trip was over. It also came in handy to take notes from our vet back home when one of my dogs had an emergency, and to keep track of how much we spent on gas. I’m not an artist by any means, but I doodled a sketch of the creek beside one of our campgrounds, and as primitive as it is, the drawing is at least representative of what I wanted to capture.  So now I can go back and reconstruct my trip with the small details that mattered and fill in those blank pages. Those are the memories that take you back to a specific time, and risk being crowded out by day-to-day minutiae.

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The kayak trip…I’m the little yellow dot on the far shore

Spend Time Alone. Explore. Be still. Reflect. Be grateful. Notice the little things. Despite this being an anniversary trip, with apologies to my husband, some of my best memories of this trip were when I ventured off alone. I’d sneak in an hour or so each day to walk through the woods alone to a creek. Or I’d use walking one of the dogs as an excuse to venture down to the beach to watch the sunset over the water. My favorite alone time was renting a kayak early one morning on Jackson Lake, before the wind kicked up. I had the whole lake to myself. The water was perfectly still, and there, spread out in front of me, was not only the majesty of the Grand Tetons themselves, but a mirror reflection of them on the water. It was breathtaking and awe-inspiring. I felt reverence. I know that this moment of calm was something I will carry with me and pull out when the stress of everyday life begins to wear me down.

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Contemplating life at Jackson Lake, The Grand Tetons

Finally, as author Susan Jeffers famously said, “Feel the fear, but do it anyway.” I don’t climb around on mountain boulders, ranging in age from 250 to 600 million years, every day. Or ever, in fact. Nor do I get the chance to venture off into the woods (bear spray in hand) exploring, searching for the source of the rushing water sounds, when I’m comfortable in my suburban home. But vacation is the time when you can be whomever you want to be. Do the things your home self, your 9-to-5 self, your mom self would NEVER do. Be bold and wander.

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Smart Perks blogger, Melanie Bisson, gets up close and personal with the wildlife.

 

Heatwave: You’ve Got to Cool It Now…

Variety of popsicles in shop

The heat. The heat. I’m melting.

Welcome to the Heat Dome. What is a heat dome? It’s some meteorological term. But frankly I don’t care. Just make it go away.

We are in Day Three (it’s like a hostage crisis) with heat indexes over 100 degrees, and maybe Texans and Floridians can handle this. But us Midwesterners are about to lose it.

Since I’m holed up in my air-conditioned office, I thought I would provide a community service and list some of my favorite summer survival gear.

There’s a little something for everyone.

Hit the Beach, with frozen Snickers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, grapes (all better frozen IMHO), and some icy cold beverages, toted in these totally cute insulated bags from Ban.do priced at $32-$34.

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Need something a little bigger for your crew? Maybe everyone can chip in on this little piece of paradise, a cooler with a cool breeze. YASSSSSSS, please. The Icybreez cooler from Wayfair.

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After work last night, I emerged from our sublimely temperature-controlled office, into a blast furnace. The temperature inside my car, which had been baking in the sun all day, was up to a toasty 113 degrees Fahrenheit. Lovely. If I’d planned ahead, I might have thought of one of those old-school reflective shades that roll across your windshield. Instead, I sat down on my black leather seats, and scalded the backs of my thighs. In any event, a hand-held mini-fan, powered by AAA batteries or a USB Cable, really would have come in handy.  They’re available for about $12.00 from Rakuten.

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When I got home, I wasn’t the only one who was feeling the heat. The puppies were feeling it, too. Hopefully, I don’t need to tell anyone how important it is to make sure your pets have access to plenty of fresh water, and that they shouldn’t be left outside for more than 15 minutes, or alone in a car, even with the windows open, at all in this weather. There are several ways to keep your dog cool, with a cooling vest, from Dr.s Smith & Foster or a Pet Cooling Mat for just $19.99 at Target.

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I also found some fabulous coolers for infants and toddlers, Meeno Babies “Cool Mee” Car Seat and Stroller liners with a 3-ply mesh that keeps baby comfy and safe from the heat. At Bed, Bath and Beyond.

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Finally, any time the heat index or real temperature climbs above 100 degrees, it’s no laughing matter. Here are some tips from the Red Cross to make sure you and your loved ones stay safe, when you have to be outdoors.

As for me…I’ll be the one cannon-balling into pool, in 5…4…3…2…

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Smart Perks blogger Melanie Bisson is old enough to have LOVED the song Cool It Now, by the The New Edition back in the day. For you youngsters, that’s a boy band featuring Bobby Brown from the 80s.

 

 

Planning a Theme Party Doesn’t Have to Be a Circus

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The season of outdoor parties is upon us! Graduation parties, weddings, birthdays, showers…everyone loves a summer party.

And one glance at Pinterest or Instagram and you’ll immediately realize that theme parties are a huge trend.  If you’re a Pinterest fan, you have to admit it…you’ve spent many an hour perusing board after board of fabulous cakes, floral arrangements, magical barn weddings, and over the top, themed birthday bashes. From elaborate color-coordinated candy tables to amazing baby gender reveal cakes, social media can give you a serious case of party FOMO (fear of missing out).

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So when my friend’s french bulldog Louis was about to turn one, I said “Me! Me! Me! I want to host the party at my house.”  Yes, we threw his dog a birthday party. And it was spectacular. I thought I’d share some tips on planning a summer birthday, so you can dream big and ensure nobody and nothing will rain on your parade, so to speak. I’ll also share some of my favorite party planning resources.

Pick a theme you love. Something that excites your imagination. Something that expresses your personality. If you’re in love with your theme, you’ll have no trouble imagining creative ideas to implement it. Enthusiasm breeds inspiration.

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Create a Vision Board. Google is your friend. Seriously, what did we do before search engines? Type in your theme (in this case, circus party) and the word images and you’ll get tons of great ideas. Copy the images into one Word document, or print out pages to create a collage or stick in a party plan folder. Whatever works for you.  Whether you want to DIY or enlist the help of professionals, starting with a vision in mind of your perfect event will save you from feeling let down with your final result.

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Have a couple WOWS in mind. Or maybe just one. For instance, the Big Top Circus Cake was my WOW. I went to the bakery about 3 weeks in advance (I know my limitations, I am not a baker) and I went in with a sheet of paper showing 7-8 circus cakes I’d found on the Internet that I was madly in love with. The baker immediately brought me back to reality. “Do you want to pay for a wedding cake?” I was asked. Some of my ideas were “Cake Boss” HUGE and way out of my budget. But we started talking about what I could afford. Layer cakes were out. However, I had my heart set on a circus tent. We ended up with a big top cake that would serve 8, covered in fondant (which is more expensive) and a dozen cupcakes with plain frosting and sprinkles, which were considerably less expensive. I got the cake I dreamed of. After all, cake is the best part of the party, right?

What about the dogs you ask? Well, my friend found some inexpensive and awesome dog bone molds and simple dog-friendly cake recipes, and he made those himself. So two-leggers and four-leggers alike got to enjoy birthday cake!

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Have fun planning. It’s a party! We made this party fun for both the dogs and their humans. Treat bags included cookies for the dogs and colorful gum balls for the people. Plus, wacky props like foam rubber noses and other goofy favors that made for plenty of great photo-ops. And we didn’t forget the two-legged kids. They got cute little circus tattoos and animals!

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Create a big first impression. Whether guests or passers-by, you want to let people know where the party’s at!

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Encourage your guests to take part in the theme. They’ll want to come prepared to play along and have a good time, too!

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Location. Location. Location. With summertime outdoor events, you have to be prepared for anything weather-wise, and you must have a sense of humor about it. Outdoor parties are not for the faint of heart. Before our party our biggest concern was rain. We considered public parks with a covered picnic shelter, but no loose dogs were allowed. We drew the line at tent rentals for the dog party, and it was a prime graduation party weekend, so we had to compete with that from nearby rental stores. So, our fallback plans included the garage and the house as a last resort. In the end, it wasn’t the rain we needed to worry about. It was oppressive 90+ temps with a heat index around 100 degrees.  We made sure we had extra water and plenty of cold drinks and ice to keep humans and dogs hydrated. We borrowed box fans from everyone we knew and had them on the deck and in the garage. We also had two swimming pools out for the dogs to cool off. We ended up moving lunch and cake indoors because no one wants to eat in that kind of heat.

Make Memories. Once the guests arrive, accept that you’re on the roller coaster, you’re buckled in, and there’s nothing you can do now but hang on and enjoy the ride. Mishaps make memories. It’s hard to see it in the moment, but looking back you’ll be talking about the things that went wrong and laughing about them. It’s a party. ENJOY! If you’re having fun, I guarantee your guests will too!

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The birthday boy@ouiouilouis loved his Bark Box.

Favorite Party Supply Stores:

Big Dot of Happiness

Oh Happy Day

Oriental Trading

Shindigz

Party City

Smart Perks blogger, Melanie Bisson is a natural born clown.

 

 

 

 

 

Pet Adoption How-To Guide

Whoever said “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend” had it totally wrong. I could care less about diamonds. Diamonds are shiny pieces of carbon. Give me a dog!

…Or a cat, like the kitten I just adopted a month ago. See, look at Chuck, my two-month-old tabby kitten!

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Chuck, in all his glory.

I swear, this blog isn’t just an excuse to post adorable photos of my kitten. As a life-long animal lover, I’ve wanted to adopt a cat (my apartment building doesn’t allow dogs, and they require a little more work than I have time for right now) for quite some time. And with spring coming and its influx of baby animals due to people not neutering their pets – I can imagine I’m not the only one wanting a new pal!

Except for in special instances like intense allergies – which might require getting a guaranteed hypoallergenic breed – I’m a huge advocate of adopting your animals. Plus, if you’re adopting through a trusted and well-vetted shelter, you might be provided with a much more reliable version of the animal’s health history, the animal most likely have been spayed and neutered, and it is significantly less costly than a breeder. There are so many cats and dogs and other lovable critters in the United States that don’t have anyone to call Mom or Dad. Of course, no need to dwell – we’ve all seen those weepy Sarah McLachlan SPCA commercials. They’re called sad puppy dog eyes for a reason!

Are you looking for a new addition to the family? Having just navigated the pet adoption process, I have a step-by-step guide!

Step 1: The Question

Decide if you have the time, energy and resources to care for a pet right now – and for the next decade or more.

Committing to taking care of an animal is a big deal. Unexpected medicine, emergency veterinarian costs, paying pet sitters, and even the everyday expenses of food, litter, treats and toys can add up. Make sure you have enough savings or at least enough expected income to cover these costs.

In addition, animals take up more time than some people think, especially first time owners. Do you have time to walk your dog at least 3 times a day, or the outdoor space to keep him? Are you willing to play with a rambunctious kitten for a couple of hours everyday to keep their minds and instincts sharp?

Another concern is if and when your family might be expanding. Of course, you can’t tell the future, but if you’re planning on having a kid anytime soon, you might want to hold off on adopting a pet. It’s also important to think about the existing members (furry or not) of the family. If you have kids, are you prepared to teach them proper treatment of animals? And if you have a pet already, how will you make sure they interact in a healthy and happy way?

I’m assuming your family already knows what kind of animal you want, but you have to ask yourself some questions about what type of pet you want. Does age matter? Kittens and puppies (so, animals under a year old) tend to be the most popular choice, but they do require more time and energy to train and care for in the beginning. Also, there are of course plenty of adult animals that need your love, too. Once you have the question of age settled, you might wonder about breed.

One “downside” to adopting is you can’t necessarily shop based on breed (certifying that the animal is purebred), as you can when buying from a breeder. However, as you do get the full veterinarian paperwork from any respectable adopting organization, you can generally have a good idea of the past history of your pet.

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Stella, a border collie/lab puppy, was just adopted from the Humane Society by a coworker.

If you are, keep going to Step 2!

Step 2: The Browsing

Now for the fun parts! Once you feel you’re ready to adopt, you get to browse. There’s a multitude of ways of going about this, but first things first: check out https://www.petfinder.com/. On this site, you can set a variety of specifications, which can help point you in the right direction. For example, you could look for a “baby” or “young” border collie that is within 200 miles of your ZIP code. Sometimes the animals are from individuals who happen to be re-homing the animal, but the majority are from adoption organizations. Oftentimes, in these instances, the cat or dog isn’t at a specific shelter, but is being fostered by a caring animal lover in their home. You can consult with the foster parent to set up an available time if you’re very interested in that animal, but be prepared to fill out vetting forms asking questions like, “How much time do you have to spare for your pet?” and “Where will your pet sleep?” beforehand.

Fellow SmartPerks blogger Melanie adopted one of her Cairn terriers from a shelter located in Nebraska that she found on Petfinder. After 2.5 months at the shelter, little Bacon was certainly happy to find his fur-ever home.

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And really, how could you say no to Bacon?!

Or, instead of trying to find a specific animal, you can go the route I went, which was to research adoption centers within my area and visit during my free time. Keep in mind that the weekends are usually the busiest time to go pet shopping, so if you can sneak in an hour or two during the work week, you’re more likely to be able to find the exact animal you want. Before I found Chuck, I visited all of the local Animal Humane Societies at least twice each, as well as a handful of other local shelters. Each time, although I met a cat I really liked at nearly all of them, there was always something that held me back because it just hadn’t clicked.

But then it did, and I couldn’t be happier.

There’s not always a way to know if it’s the right time and place to adopt the exact animal you are meeting with. You might not even have all of your pet supplies yet, or you were not expecting to come home with a pet TODAY and now feel a little anxious about what to do next.

But have no fear…

Step 3: The First Day

If you found The One, and went through with your adoption, congratulations! This will be an exciting time in both your family’s and your pet’s life.

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It’s an exciting, but sleepy, time. Lots of napping.

But now, if you’ve gotten little Fifi or Fido home and aren’t exactly sure what you can do, here are some pointers.

Some things to look out for when pet-proofing your home:

  • Make sure all plants in your home or pet-friendly
  • Keep all medications, chemicals and cleaning agents on high shelves in tightly sealed containers
  • Secure all wires and chords so animals can’t chew on them
  • Vacuum your floor regularly and check for any small items dogs or cats might try to nibble on
  • Always keep trash (including in the bathroom) covered

Also, it’s important when introducing your animal to your newly pet-proofed home that it might take them up to 2 weeks to fully adjust and be comfortable. Giving them space and safe nooks and crannies to hide in, slowly introducing young children or other animals to your pet, and being home as often as possible to facilitate bonding are all good ways to make them feel welcome.

Now, ready to have some fun?

Both cats and dogs need toys in order to remain happy. For both animals, you will want to pick out toys that facilitate activity (like rope pulls for dogs and fishing poles for cats), distraction (like mobile toys filled with treats) and comfort (like stuffed animals or an old t-shirt).

You can check for local dog parks, join a Meet Up group for Pet Lovers, or spend some time cuddling on the couch.

Whatever you do, I hope you have the happiest time with your new friend.

Blogger Katie U., a Smart Perks employee, is currently wishing she could upload about 30 other pics of her beloved Chuck.

 

 

Smart Perks State of the State: The Heat is On!

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No colony collapse in my garden! Lots of fuzzy bumblebees.

Greetings & Salutations, Friends!

We’re in the thick of summer and our Smart Perks HQ team is all abuzz with activity.  We just sent our fabulous fall money-saving offers to the printer (look for them in your mailbox mid-August,) and now our creative department is busy giving the Smart Perks website its fall makeover.

The next Smart Perks mailing includes some amazing offers for refreshing your home for the new fall season from leading brands like 3-Day Blinds, Wayfair, The Company Store, DirectTV (NFL Sunday Ticket – YES!) and many others. If you’re not on the Smart Perks mailing list, you’ll want to sign up for the next mailing.

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Loved these books!

In-between gardening, reading some great books, filling my bird-feeders (lots of hungry hummingbirds and ravenous woodpeckers,) and enjoying some time ON the lake and IN the lake, I’ve been having a lot of fun taking photos of all the new puppies in our neighborhood.

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Lake Minnetonka, Minnesota

My husband just built a new front porch. He’s quite the handyman. So while sitting out in my new rocker, (oh my gosh, I’m in my early 40s!) I have to stop anyone who passes by with a dog to visit. That’s how I met the  5-month old Bernese Mountain Dog from across the street, and the 6-month old Siberian Husky from around the corner.

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Enter the Summer Caption contest! http://on.fb.me/1JexQsX.

The darling husky puppy, Kash, is so cute, that he was chosen for the Smart Perks Hot Dog Caption contest running this month on our Facebook page. The prizes include Best Buy® and restaurant.com gift cards, along with a darling heart bracelet and a 27-piece tool kit. Get creative and enter your caption today. Share it and encourage your friends to vote, too! Winners will be announced on Friday, July 31st.

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Sweet Martha’s Cookies – A perennial MN State Fair Favorite

Next up, it’s fair time. For us here in Minnesota, The Great Minnesota Get-Together, or Sweat-Together, to be more accurate. Whatever you have planned, stay cool and enjoy. Summers are way too short, so be sure to make time to really enjoy your favorite summertime traditions.

Next up in the blog, some great tips for laptops versus tablets from our Smart Perks Electronics expert, Karl. Stay tuned.

Dog Days: Making Summer Safer for Your Dog

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Did you know the saying “It’s a dog’s life” means life is tough? WHAT? Obviously whoever coined that phrase never met my dogs. Spoiled rotten. As they should be. Right? My dogs LOVE summertime. It’s their favorite time of year. But there are a lot of things us pet parents need to be aware of to keep our beloved besties safe during the dog days of summer. Here are ten ways you can protect your pooch this summer.

  1. Flea & Tick Prevention – In some parts of the country, flea and tick prevention is a year-round necessity. But for many of us with cold winters, it’s April through October, per our Veterinarian’s recommendation. Being from Minnesota, tick-borne illnesses in dogs are very common, and not just Lyme’s. My mother has a cabin in northern Minnesota and all four of her shih-tzus have contracted some form of tick-borne illness from deer ticks.  11121943_1136831179676385_7852837262015505958_oThere are a variety of topical, spot-on treatments and oral medications that are very effective. I’ve used K-9 Advantix 2 on my three terriers for years and it has been very effective. Seresto is a new flea and tick collar that claims to be effective for 8 months, so no more forgetting to apply on a monthly basis. I simply jot down the dates in my monthly planner for easy reference. Shop around for the best price. Costco and 1-800-PetMeds are two good options, but my veterinarian now offers rebates to make medications more affordable. If you’d like to try natural flea and tick preventatives, those are available as well. Discuss your options with your vet for additional advice.
  2. Heartworm – Heartworm is transmitted by mosquitoes, a summertime staple, unfortunately. However, unlike twenty or thirty years ago, there is treatment available for heartworm. But it is a painful and risky treatment, that can require a dog’s activity to be limited for as long as two months. The best thing you can do for your pet is prevent heartworm all together by treating him or her monthly. My dogs are tested each spring with a simple blood test, and then treated monthly until a hard freeze in the fall, with Heartgard. Talk to your vet for more information. 1010551_678388688853972_2026449562_n
  3. Does your dog love to garden? Something about all that dirt and lovely smelling compost proves an irresistible combination to canines. We flower gardeners can get very frustrated by Fido’s garden forays. However, it’s not just a nuisance. It can also be dangerous. Many perennials are toxic to dogs: begonia, coleus, foxglove, gladioli, aloe, ferns, and ivy are just a few. For a complete list of toxic perennials, check the ASPCA list. Also, be aware of what you are using as mulch. Cocoa bean mulch smells delicious to dogs, but is harmful if ingested. If you think your dog has consumed a toxic plant, check the list and contact your vet immediately.
  4. Who doesn’t love a summer picnic or barbecue? I know my dogs can’t resist a little nibble of hamburger or a baby carrot handed out on the sly. But be aware of the foods that are toxic to dogs. No guacamole or fruit salad. Avocados, onions, and grapes are just a couple of foods dogs should never eat. For a more complete list check out this link from the Humane Society.lg_1299951_1372199250
  5. Sunscreen for dogs?  Did you know that dogs can suffer the harmful effects of the sun’s UV rays, too? White dogs and short-haired dogs are especially susceptible to sunburn. Here is a list from Cesar’s Way – Canine Skincare Awareness of helpful tips for keeping your dog sun-safe this summer.
  6. Swimming. I know many of my friends with water dogs and retrievers think the sight of my little stubby-leggers wearing flotation devices is hilarious. Dogs instinctively know how to swim right? Well, yes, but many breeds with flat snouts and stubby legs are very weak swimmers. They should never be left unattended around a pool. If you boat with your dog, a life jacket for a dog who suddenly jumps can be a lifesaver. Outward Hound makes great flotation devices for pets. 278406_244044452288400_3410829_o
  7. Lake Water. It is never a good idea to let your dog drink lake water. Certain types of blue-green algae can be toxic to dogs. Also, many smaller lakes are chemically treated. Rinsing your dog after a good swim can help avoid skin reactions and take care of that delightful fish smell he picked up on the beach.
  8. Extreme Heat – Always provide plenty of fresh water for your pets, indoors and especially outdoors. If your dog is going to be outside for any length of time, make sure he or she has access to a shady spot, such as under trees, patio umbrellas, or in a dog house.190253_138945479464965_743003_n
  9. As much as your doggie loves to accompany you on your errands, it’s best to leave him home in the summer months. Studies show that when the temperature is 85 degrees outside, the temperature inside a parked car can rise to 90 degrees within 5 minutes, 100 degrees within 10 minutes, and 120 degrees within 30 minutes. It’s better to be safe, and risk a pouty pooch.
  10. Fireworks – Every 4th of July, before we leave the house for the fireworks display on the lake, we turn the air conditioner up, turn on all the televisions, close the shades and make sure our dogs are safe indoors. We don’t want them to be one of the many dogs who run away frightened by the loud booms. Many of my friends use the Thunder Shirt, which is a snug t-shirt that helps make the dog feel secure. There are also calming collars. But one of the best things you can do is desensitize your dog to loud noises. Here’s a great list of ideas you might want to trylg_1299951_1372200805

– Blogger Melanie B, a Smart Perks employee, spends her summer gardening, boating and stalking cute doggies like a crazed paparazzo.

“The Best & the Brightest in the Surprise Box World: From Beauty Products to Bowties for your Boxer

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Ipsy Glam Bag – May 2015

My heart flutters as I approach the magical portal at the end of the driveway. Opening that small hinged door has the power to transport me to pure, unadulterated, retail nirvana. Hooray! A package for me! You see, I am a surprise box junkie. My mail carrier and I are on a first name basis. He knows my dogs’ names. Yes, it’s that bad.

If the post office ever does go out of business, as they keep threatening (for Pete’s sake give them whatever they want…I need Saturday delivery) I will be completely inconsolable.

For the past year and a half I have been on a retail odyssey that has seen me sign up for virtually any and all curated, surprise boxes available in the marketplace.

If there is a club out there that sticks surprise stuff into a box, chosen just for you and delivers it to your door, I’ve tried it. I will never be able to afford a personal shopper, but curated box programs are the next best thing.

Here’s how they work: In most cases, you fill out a profile, telling the company a few things about yourself, your pet, your child, whomever the box is intended for. If it’s makeup, they may ask you for your skin type, your hair color, your style (i.e. preppy, romantic, classic, edgy, etc.) Some programs will even scour your Pinterest board or Instagram account to get a better idea of who you are. Then a stylist or curator selects products that she thinks would best fit your personal style.

Here’s a quick summary of just a few of the boxes I’ve tried:

Birchbox

Category: Makeup & beauty

Frequency: Monthly or special Limited Edition one-time boxes

Bottom Line: At $10 a month, it’s an awesome value. However, I decided I needed to choose between Birchbox and Ipsy,  and this program felt heavy on skincare and hair products. Those are both consumables that I don’t change up every month. Birchbox does feature high quality brands (Benefit!) and occasionally some mass-market products are thrown in. I still shop from the Birchbox online store. I would recommend it.

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Ipsy Glam Bag

Category: Makeup & beauty + a cute bag

Frequency: Monthly

Bottom Line: I’ve been an Ipsy subscriber for over a year at $10 a month, which is a bargain. I would give Ipsy as a gift to every teenage girl I know, but there is a wait list and last time I checked they had disabled the gifting option. Each month you receive a cute little makeup bag, customized for Ipsy, and the designs are darling. Ipsy does do some skincare, but is more makeup focused than Birchbox. They send some great products from brands like Urban Decay, Dr. Brandt and Pacifica, as well as some unusual brands that I never would have tried, like Kat Von D. Tremendous value and the bag really pushes them over the top.

JewelMint Box

Category: Jewelry

Frequency: Monthly or one-time

Bottom Line: Jewelry preference is really subjective. The pieces they send are very trendy and are not going to hold up to years of wear. However, you do receive some really cute items and the presentation and packaging are fabulous. It’s a fun little pick-me-up for yourself or as a gift. The JewelMint online store is fabulous, too. You’ll find low prices on the same on-trend jewelry included in their mystery boxes. Sign up for emails and receive notice about special sales!

NatureBox

Category: Healthy snacks

Frequency: Monthly

Bottom Line: Do you love Trader Joe’s? Then you will love NatureBox. They give you some choice in what you will receive, but you can also let them choose for you too. You receive 5 snacks a month, but you can order separately, if you find something you love. I’m more of a “cupcakes and donuts snacker,” but my healthier friends really like Nature Box. Cost is $19.95 a month.

Stitch Fix

Category: On-trend clothing & accessories

Frequency: As frequently as you wish

Bottom Line: You pay $25 to have a Personal Stylist choose 5 different clothing or accessory items based on your profile. Whatever you buy, the $25 is deducted. You’re under no obligation to buy. Return shipping is free and packaging provided.  I always found at least two or three items I wanted, but usually could afford one or two. It’s REALLY fun to try. They encourage you to snap a selfie wearing their clothes and post, even if you plan to return. The clothes are cute, boutiquey, on trend, and give you a chance to play Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Another great retail therapy experience.

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FabFitFub Club

Category: Fitness, beauty, fashion & more

Frequency: Quarterly

Bottom Line: This is Entertainment TV personality Giuliana Rancic’s program. Being as it’s quarterly, it’s more expensive than others. $49.99 per box. However, you can typically get $10 off your first box through a pop-up when you go to the site, which makes it a great deal. I loved the items in this box, which felt very boutiquey, indulgent, L.A. princessy (I live in Minnesota.) Items are full-size and range from: a fitness DVD, a Sonia Dakar skincare product, an exercise ball, a fabulously funky headband, a cool retro apron, delicious Kai roll-on perfume, and then there were always a couple mass-market freebies thrown in that made no sense, like pantiliners. But the quality of the overall box made up for it. I stuck with it for three boxes.

Candy Club

Category: Retro candy in cute packaging

Frequency: Monthly

Bottom Line: Darling, colorful, unique and out of the ordinary candies. If you want to simply photograph your box for Instagram to show your friends, and your money is burning a hole in your pocket…this is for you. Otherwise, if you’re like me, you can run to the grocery store and for $10 buy yourself some M&Ms, a Kit Kat, some Jolly Ranchers, and a Hershey Bar, and call it good. The monthly box is $27.99.

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Luxury Beauty Box from O’s Circle of Friends

Oprah’s Circle of Friends

Category: It’s from Oprah. I don’t care what it is. Just give it to me!

Frequency: Annual fee and surprise Items throughout the year, including subscriptions for yourself and two friends

Bottom Line: There are three levels. Don’t tell my husband, I bought the Premier Level for $199. I had to do it. I thought Oprah might send me to Australia, or give me a car. Or at the very least, invite me to her house in Hawaii to spend some time with her and Gayle. So far I got a luxury beauty box. One of the items, a thermal face mask containing 24kt gold is valued at $298. I’ll get back to you on this one. But I’m holding out hope for my surprise gift from The O List! C’mon trip to Australia!

BarkBox

Category: Dog toys & treats

Frequency: Monthly

Bottom Line: If you’re not a dog lover, I generally don’t talk to you much. So basically all of my friends subscribe to BarkBox and think nothing of spending the $19 a month or more to indulge their furry family members. Treats and toys are made in the U.S. and all the pups I know give BarkBox four paws up. Money well spent.

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Wagdrobe Curated Dog Couture

Wagdrobe

Category: Canine couture & accessories

Frequency: As frequently as you wish

Bottom Line: This is like Stitch Fix for dogs. Wagdrobe is a newer company, and so I hope their customer service continues to be as AWESOME as my recent experience was! Super fast shipping, darling customized packaging and FUN, FUN, FUN for pet parents and pooches alike. Well, that is if your pup likes to get lots of treats for dressing up and posing for ADORABLE pics. I bought boxes for all three of my dogs. Beanie got the Hipster Box, Eloise got the Spoiled Princess and Bacon got the Trendsetter Box. The value compared to finding these darling outfits and accessories in stores is awesome!

Okay, I could go on…but here are a few tips if you want to try some boxes on your own.

  1. Don’t do too many at one time. You can only wear so much moisturizer.
  2. Set a reminder for yourself to cancel before your next ship date if you want to try a recurring program.
  3. Keep track of how many of the items you actually use/wear/eat to determine value. Don’t get caught up in the fun.
  4. Share with others. Take pics and share on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Check out the items others receive in their boxes before you order, too. You can get a feel for whether or not it’s product you’ll like.
  5. Most importantly FILL OUT YOUR PROFILES and GIVE FEEDBACK. That’s the best way to ensure you’re going to love what’s inside the box, as much as you did receiving the bright, shiny package in the mail.
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Beanie sporting one of his Wagdrobe ensembles from the Hipster Hound collection.

– Blogger Melanie B, a Smart Perks employee, enjoys dogs, cupcakes and shopping, and considers herself an expert on all three.