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Four and a half years ago Corinne Miller of Springfield, Ore., was
a victim of the type of harassment that all women runners fear.
Miller, then a high school senior, was running along a local road
behind three other members of the Springfield High girls'
cross-country team when a black-leather-clad motorcycle rider veered
off the road and trapped her against the guardrail with his bike. The
man looked her in the eye and pinched her rear before roaring off.
''I was with three other people, and I still wasn't safe,'' says
Miller, who recalls being so frightened that she didn't even think to
shout for her friends.
Now Miller runs with a single male companion who provides her with
ample security. He is a four-year-old, specially trained Doberman
pinscher named Sam, one of 12 Dobermans collectively known as Project
Safe Run. Based in nearby Eugene, where runners sometimes outnumber
cars on the roads, the nonprofit service is used by as many as 400
women in a busy month. In the past five years Project Safe Run has
chalked up nearly 5,000 runs without a single incident of assault.
''Our biggest problem is that we don't have enough quality dogs
to fill the need,'' says the program's founder, 32-year-old Shelley
Reecher, who runs 40 miles a week and has trained all of the dogs.
For a donation of $25 a month, a woman may borrow a dog as often as
she wants. To meet the demand, some of the dogs are signed out four
or five times a day, though their workouts rarely exceed eight miles
a day.
Ten years ago, in an incident unrelated to running, Reecher
(pronounced REEK- er) was abducted and raped by four men. ''That
was a shocking, cruel lesson to me,'' she says. ''A lot of women tell
themselves this doesn't happen. Well, it does.'' When she moved to
Eugene to study history at the University of Oregon, Reecher knew
that a running partner would be essential, but she soon discovered
that dependable human ones were few and far between. Having grown up
with guard dogs and having become skilled in their training, she
brought one home from the local pound, named him Jake and trained him
to run with her and to defend her against assault. ''Pretty soon my
roommate started using him, and then a friend of a friend,'' Reecher
says. ''Before I knew it there were 16 people running with him.''
Soon Reecher had two dogs, and then four; and the demand for them
kept increasing. At one point her one-bedroom apartment was furnished
with a bed, a dresser, a few file cabinets and eight large Doberman
cages. The dogs have since been farmed out to homes around the area,
and each ''chapter'' is run by dedicated Project Safe Run volunteers.

A woman who is new to the program is given a short orientation,
but because the dogs are so skilled in both running and protection --
Reecher has chosen Jake's 11 companions, most of the dogs donated to
her by local people, from some 1,500 candidates -- there are a
minimum of instructions. Each dog has a six-foot leash and stays on
the runner's left, well out of her way. It wears a backpack
containing the woman's keys, emergency phone numbers, change for the
telephone and, in most cases, weights to slow the dog down. A new
member of Project Safe Run usually has no trouble finding a dog she
feels comfortable with. More often than not, she will grow attached
to one whose personality, running style and preferred distance match
her own.
Once out on the run, the dog is ''working.'' If the runner is
approached by a male friend, the woman will let her dog know with a
calming word and a move toward the visitor. If, however, he is a
stranger who appears threatening, the dog will sense its companion's
hesitation and give the stranger the canine equivalent of a verbal
warning by growling or barking. ''He's saying, 'You really don't want
to attack this woman, because look at my teeth,' '' says Reecher, who
emphasizes that the Dobermans are not attack dogs. They are trained
only to match the level of aggression of anyone who threatens their
running partner. Those who ignore the dog's warning and venture
within the length of the leash can expect a good hard bite on the
arm, for starters. As of yet no one has tried. That doesn't mean the
dogs have grown complacent: A practice drill will turn a docile
Doberman into a snarling defender in a matter of seconds.
There is little doubt that the look and reputation of the breed
are the key to Project Safe Run's success. ''People think they are
land sharks,'' says Reecher. ''When you're running with one of these
dogs, the balance of power shifts. Instead of comments like, 'Hey,
baby, nice t -- -- ,' I'll hear, 'Nice day for a run,' or 'Got a
good grip on that dog?' '' By effectively eliminating the threat of
assault, Reecher explains, women gain the running freedom men take
for granted. For those such as Miller, it's a new experience. ''The
program has given me the confidence to run by myself,'' she says.
Project Safe Run barely supports itself, and it's necessary for
some of the dogs to moonlight as guard dogs. (Reecher's other
business, founded in 1984, is Canine Training & Security Inc., which
trains and supplies dogs for home or business guard duty.) The dogs
also make their share of public appearances, often taking part in
police demonstrations and rape-prevention seminars. Jake, the
original Safe Run dog, handles much of the program's p.r. work and
proudly wears a backpack autographed by Alberto Salazar. ''Frankly,''
Reecher admits, ''he's getting to be a bit of a snob.''
The male runners of Eugene have come to accept the dogs, although
their reactions to the women with Dobermans vary considerably. Some
men make wide circles around the dogs as they pass, some smile with
approval, others appear offended by the apparent assumption that
women expect the worst from them. And every so often, one will try to
make a connection with a dog on its own level -- by barking. ''Only
the men will do that,'' says Reecher with a laugh. ''I've never seen
a passing woman go, 'Roof, roof.' I wonder why.'' END


WARREN MORGAN Jake stays on Reecher's left, protecting her while toting her belongings on his back.