Therapy Dog Provides Healing During Larry Nassar Sentencing

Preston, a therapy dog, wore a small blue to day four of the sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar, a former sports-medicine osteopath who has admitted to committing sexual abuse.

Preston wears a blue bandanna whenever he’s working as a canine advocate, though he’ll sometimes add a tie to dress up the ensemble for court appearances.

“It’s kind of a signal to him that he’s on the clock, so to speak,” said Alex Brace, executive director of Small Talk Children’s Assessment Center, a Lansing, Mich.,-based nonprofit that serves children who are survivors of physical or sexual abuse. “Once he takes off his bandanna, it lets him know he can go back to being a puppy who’s just wagging his tail and playing around.”

The black lab interacts almost daily with children who visit Small Talk for counseling. Preston also works with the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office to comfort children when they testify in court.

The dog was stationed outside Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s courtroom at the Ingham County Circuit Court in Lansing this week as victims of Nassar confronted the ex-Michigan State University doctor about the sexual abuse he inflicted. Nassar, 54, pleaded guilty in November to ten counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct.

The experience of confronting an abuser, especially in a crowded courtroom, can be traumatic, Brace said. Preston weighs nearly 70 pounds and his size alone helps children feel protected, Brace said. Sometimes Preston joins plaintiffs when they speak from the witness stand. Preston sits at their feet and rests his head in their laps, allowing himself to be petted during testimony.

During Nassar’s sentencing this week, Preston did not appear alongside victims on the stand. He was stationed in the hallway, however, to provide support as people entered and exited the courtroom.

Attorneys, victims, family members and news reporters all stopped to pet him Friday. Many took selfies next to Preston in his blue tie. The dog’s playfulness provided a rare diversion amid hours of grueling testimony.

“He’s got an incredible sense of whenever someone’s in pain,” said Ashley Vance, a Small Talk crisis counselor who works as Preston’s handler. “He’ll go right up to the person who needs it the most and start nuzzling them. He seems to know exactly what’s needed.”