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 REEKer) 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."