For anyone navigating their 20s, domesticity can be a tricky proposition, often as beguiling as it is difficult to achieve. You change jobs often, live in rented apartments, buy particleboard furniture you won’t get too attached to in case you have to leave it behind. For professional athletes, just multiply that by a factor of 10 or more. You spend a huge chunk of the year traveling and then often have little to no control of when you might be traded or released. A relatively small thing, then — like pet ownership — can feel like a comparatively huge leap, but it’s one Miguel Ibarra decided to take last year with the miniature Shiba Inu he named “MJ.”
In case you’re not familiar with Shibas, they are the smallest of the Japanese dog breeds, the largest of which is the Akita. In Japan, they’re the equivalent of beagles in the U.S.: ubiquitous smallish dogs that are neither yippy nor too big. You might be familiar with them through the “doge” meme.
They’re also handsome dogs with charming curled tails that people will often mistake for puppies well into adulthood, where they top out at about 25 pounds. Mini Shibas like Ibarra’s are more in the range of 10 to 14 pounds. Full disclaimer: I own a Shiba Inu as well.
The main difference between my dog and Ibarra’s is that his is a straight up Instagram celebrity and well worth a follow if you like adorable dog pics in your feed.
With their foxlike looks and generally quiet temperament (although if they don’t like something they will most definitely let you know with a variety of high-pitched yowls and cries), Shibas often strike people who want a dog but can’t get a big one as a perfect smaller dog that doesn’t come off as a small dog, and for Ibarra it was no different.
“The first year I was here, [defender] Kevin Friedland had a Shiba Inu, a mini Shiba Inu,” he says. “And I always told myself that was the type of dog I would want if I ever got one. But I never really pulled the trigger until last year. That's always been my dream dog. Having him is amazing. It's something to come home to.”
Named after Ibarra’s favorite basketball player, Michael Jordan, MJ is just a year old — his birthday is actually today, February 19 — and while he has plenty of that puppy energy, he also rests as hard as he plays.
“He goes to sleep at 10 every night and doesn't wake up until 2:30 or 3:00 p.m.,” says Ibarra. “So he will sleep in, but when he wakes up, it means we're playing the whole day.”
Like any extremely good boy, MJ gets into his share of trouble, but he also loves snuggling and supporting the team. Socialization at a young age is important for all dogs, but especially Shibas because they can often be cold towards people or dogs who are not part of their family.
“They told us once we got him to make sure to get him with a lot of dogs, bring him near a lot of people so he would be friendly and he's been great,” says Ibarra. “We take him to dog parks and anybody can come up to him.”
So yes, MJ is a comparatively small thing — especially as a miniature Shiba Inu — but it is kind of a big thing for Ibarra, who went from being drafted by the Portland Timbers to picked up by MNUFC in the NASL to going to Club Léon for a mostly frustrating stint to returning to Minnesota only to struggle in his first season in MLS. But his play last year was a revelation as the diminutive winger racked up seven goals and eight assists — second on the team in both categories. MJ is evidence the California native is at home in Minnesota, and Ibarra has proved he belongs in MLS.
When I explain that my dog more or less doesn’t care about other dogs when we go to the dog park, Ibarra laughs.
“Mine will not play with little dogs,” he says. “Only big dogs.”