They're still dogging him.

Just not the way they planned.

Main Line Animal Rescue has backed off its idea to use billboard space to further excoriate Michael Vick. Instead, it is buying ad space in newspapers that operate in cities the Eagles and Vick will visit.

The ads will encourage local animal lovers to visit shelters to pamper pit bulls on the day the Eagles and Vick play in that city. The shelter also pledges five bags of dog food for every time Vick gets tackled that day.

"Rather than slamming the guy for the next couple of years, we thought, 'Why not come up with something funny?' " explained Bill Smith, founder of Main Line Animal Rescue.

The Eagles are not amused.

The ad ran in the special football section of today's Washington Post. It ran a day after Vick spoke to local students about his misdeeds, the latest of several such scheduled appearances by Vick coordinated by the team and local and national animal interests.

Vick was not made available for comment. The Eagles declined to comment.

Relax, Smith said: "We're not thinking about attacking Michael Vick."

They hope opponents will, though. All of which sounds like a pretty clear shot at the Birds and their newest ex-con, from one of the organizations that reacted most violently to Vick's signing.

Vick served 18 months of a 23-month prison sentence for running a dogfighting and gambling operation in Virginia. Upon his release and conditional reinstatement to the league last month, the Birds signed him to a 2-year contract.

Immediately after the signing, Smith and Co. pledged to rent billboard space near Lincoln Financial Field to protest Vick's presence inside it.

And now?

"We're all really tired of it," Smith said. Besides, he said, Vick has served his prison term: "He has a right to have a job."

Full participation in that job will wait until Sept. 27. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell last week suspended Vick for the first two games of the season.

Smith anticipated a 6-week suspension, which is what Goodell hinted at in August. That's why the first ad ran in the Post, said Smith; it is a Week 7 opponent. He said he would not seek to buy ad space in Bay-area papers when the Birds visit Oakland the week before the Redskins game.

Smith said he already has contacted newspapers in San Diego and Chicago, where the Eagles visit in November. He said he would consider placing ads later in the season, too. The Eagles play in Atlanta against Vick's previous team, then in New York and Dallas.

The ad itself might change, Smith said. He plans for one version to note that Vick received a second chance, and so do animals, especially pit bulls, whose image as dangerous killers was further harmed by Vick's crimes.

Smith realizes that the program might not generate much puppy chow. Vick is slated to be a backup quarterback whom the Eagles plan to use as an X-factor, included in specialty plays on which he might act as a decoy.

So, Vick might not get tackled much, if at all. Smith said the Rescue would donate a minimum amount of food regardless of how much Vick gets hit.

The humor level of the ad is a subjective matter. The subject matter - especially the inclusion of Vick and the reward to animals when Vick gets punished - is not.

"We're not stupid," Smith said. "We're using Michael Vick to get attention."

It's working. *