Sure, say Tom and Margaret Dougherty, their dogs are "just" dogs. But they've been in the family for more than 10 years. They love each other. They love their masters. Tom Dougherty calls them "my girls." "Hell," he says, "they talk to me better than my kids did."

So maybe what the Doughertys did a month ago wasn't so amazing. Surely, it was stubborn. Possibily, it was courageous. Whatever, it was a man-likes-dog story that, as Tom Dougherty puts it, "is even bigger than a revolution."

Ordered by a British skipper to have their two dogs killed before he would evacuate the Dougherty from war-torn Iran, the Doughterys refused.

Their decision put them right back in the middle of the violent Iranian revolution they had spent months tyring to leave-and put their lives in considerable danger. It took two days for the Doughertys and their dogs to reach the relative safety of Tehran. Not until a week later were Tom, Margaret, Little Bit and Chibbie safely home in Herndon, Va.

The Doughertys know that most people would not have risked their lices to save the lives of two dogs, dear or not. They have been told they are crazy. They expect to be told so again.

"Everyone says, 'How can you put a dog's life ahead of your life?' But I had to live with myself," said Dougherty, 49. "To turn around and give in at that particular moment, I'd have been no good the rest of my life."

What makes the Doughertys' stance so striking is that it would have been so easy for them to have given him. Their confrontation with the British captain took place at 2 a.m., on the bridge of his ship, several miles out in the Persian Gulk, as a storm was whipping up. It capped an especially sleepless week for Dougherty. He had spent most of it making arrangements for 125 American employes of Stanwick International Inc., the Rosslyn-based navl consulting firm for which he worked, to leave the port city of Bandar Abbas.

Faced with the same order from the same captain on that same night, every other pet owner in the Stanwick party except one capitulated. That couple and the Doughertys elected to be put ashore again-even though half of Bandar Abbas was a battlefield and even though the couples were sternly warned that neither the British nor the American military were coming back on another evacuation misson.

Dougherty says the British captain never gave a reason for his death-to-dogs order. And dougherty cannot figure out what it might have been.

A 30-year veteran of the U.S. Navy who retired in 1977 as a commander, Dougherty said the skipper's reason could not have been nautical law or custom. "I've never seen a ship that doesn't have a pet of some kind," Dougherty said.

Nor could the trouble have been the way Little Bit, a Lhasa apso, and Chibbie, a toy poodle, were packaged. The Doughertys had carefully loaded them into a plastic pet carrier, with food and water for several days.

"I guess we'll never know," Dougherty said. "But what I do know is, it makes me nervous just to talk about it."

The next morning's events were not exactly relaxing. Dougherty bribed a Bandar Abbas man he knew who owned a bus. For $1,000, the man agreed to drive the Doughertys and the other couple who refused to kill their dog to Tehran, the Iranian capital and Stanwick's Iranian headquarters.

The trip was 953 miles, through blown-up tanks, machine gun nests and random searches. Much against the odds, the Doughertys made it-and so did their furry friends.

The Doughertys hardly expected such drama when they went to Iran las summer. In fact, they thought they were in for a stay in the Land of the Good Life.

"All we were thinking about was that it would be nice to get away from the snow," Doughertys said. "That and about how we could go to Europe on vacation every few weeks."

Doughertyhs job was support activity manager for the Stanwick employes based in Bandar Abbas. He thought he was going to be responsible fo rthe administration of payroll, food, housing and tranportation. But because he arrived just as revolt was also arriving, Doughertys almost immediately became a policeman, too.

As "insidents" beacme more common, Dougherty was responsible for warning Stanwick employees and their families not to venture off the grounds of their compound. But many ignored the advice.

"I understand why they did. We just didn't believe the country was going down the tubes," Dougherty says.

In many cases, the "street smarts" Doughertys accumulated during a West Philadelphia boyhood saw him through the troubles.

When local officials turned off the lights during the Doughertys' last month in Bandar Abbas, he organized a committee to defend the Stanwick compound and armed it with baseball bats and pool cues.

When all around him were having their phones cut off, Dougherty applied some money to the proper palm. As a result, during his last week in Bandar Abbas, his was the only phone that could reach Tehran.

And when a gang began Rocking his car one day and shouting, "Yankee, go home," Dougherty rolled downed the window and said: "I'd love to. You going to buy me the plane ticket?" End of rocking.

"The whole time, I was never frightened," says Dougherty of his seven months in Iran. Then he grins. "Maybe I was too frightened to be frightened. But a frightened man couldn't have done what I did with the dogs, I guess."

The Doughertys are adjusting well to the U.S. Their home is spotless. The flowers are coming in. The back yard shows that someone with a mower has paid careful and recent attention.

But the surest sign that they are home is the way Little Bit and Cibbie curl up at Om Dougherty's feet. A dog will always be man's best friend when man returns the favor.