LEESBURG, Va. -- Three minutes later, with flock penned and the work complete, Terry, who tends 170 sheep on 190 acres in nearby Hillsboro, sighed, wrapped her drenched self in a yellow slicker proffered by a stranger and lauded her dog.

"He said to himself, 'It doesn't seem right, but you're asking me to do it so I'll do it,' " she said. "That just gets you choked up, bless his heart."

It was but one of a weekend-long series of remarkable feats by border collies, humble-looking canines that do the work of many men on a farm.

"These dogs here worked cattle every day this winter," said Ted Johnson, who drove all the way from L.A. ("Lower Alabama," he chuckled) to trial his Jan and Don at the Oatlands Open Sheep Dog Trial on Saturday and Sunday.

Johnson, president of both the National Border Collies Handlers Association and the Alabama Soybean Association, said the first time he saw a border collie work five years ago, he was sold. "I said, 'I've got to have one of them to help me gather cattle.'

"Today," Johnson said, "I don't even have to saddle a horse. I just put two dogs in the truck, drive down to the field and send one to the right and one to the left. We gathered 480 cattle every day for five months.

"And these dogs never ask for a raise, it's never too hot or cold for 'em and they don't take unemployment. All they ask is a little something to eat and let 'em work."

Let us now praise small black-and-white dogs. Everyone else seems to be.

Take McCaig, for example. He quit the Madison Avenue advertising business 17 years ago to retire to the Virginia countryside and write. While his wife has raised sheep, he has spun 12 books, none of which took off except the sentimental one about sheep dogs, "Nop's Trials," which has sold a mere half-million copies.

There is something about a working dog, of course, that touches man's heart.

The saga of border collies started over a century ago in the Scottish border country, where no one cared what a dog looked like as long as it gathered sheep.

So it continues, according to McCaig, who said the last thing anyone cares about at a sheep dog trial is what the beast looks like.

"It doesn't even have to be a border collie," he said. "If you could get a German shepherd to do the job, he'd win. But, of course, a German shepherd would eat the first sheep it ran across and be disqualified."

In all, about 50 handlers turned up over the weekend to test their dogs in one of the nation's eight major sheep dog trials, and none brought German shepherds. Some dogs were black and white, others brown and white, others brown, others red. None were pretty.

The pleasure lay in what happened after a dog left its master's hand: The hell-for-leather run across the field; the "modified predatory instinct" of fixing the terrified sheep with an intimidating glare that convinced them to flock and move; the ranging back and forth behind the flock; the deft cutoff of a stray.

"They say a good dog haunts a flock across the course," said McCaig.

Terry, wife of a retired Secret Service agent, got her first border collie 18 years ago as a gift from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, to whom her husband was assigned at the time.

But border collies make terrible pets, she found. "They have to work," Terry said. So she bought three sheep to work the dog on, and eventually moved out of a subdivision to tend more sheep, and finally over the years turned into a full-fledged sheep farmer.

But press her and you'll find it's not the sheep she gets up early in the morning for, but the dogs and the pleasure of watching them work.

"And that moment," said McCaig, reflecting on the wild few seconds after the lightning touched down and the dog took off, "is something she'll remember the rest of her life."