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-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, of Holt pleaded guilty in November to ten counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in Ingham and Eaton County. Those charges could result in a minimum sentence of 25 to 40 years in prison and a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The plea deal stipulated that Nassar's accusers would be allowed to give victim impact statements in court before his sentencing. The statements began Tuesday and are expected to continue into next week.
As of Thursday, 68 women and girls had given statements. The Michigan Attorney General's Office expects that more than 100 victims total will give statements by the time Aquilina announces Nassar's sentence.
Most of the statements came from athletes who went to Nassar for medical treatment. Nassar's accusers include Olympic gymnasts Gabby Douglas, Jamie Dantzscher, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Simone Biles and Jordyn Wieber, a DeWitt native.
The statements in court this week have been emotional, prompting tears and, occasionally, applause from the court gallery. Several of the women and girls glared directly at Nassar as they detailed his devastating impact on their lives.
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 in Ingham County 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."
Though Preston wags his tail and sniffs at his surroundings, he rarely barks.
The two-year-old puppy has undergone extensive training to follow commands. Preston was raised in the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility in Iowa through a Prison Puppies program. He worked with Leader Dogs for the Blind before making a career change to join Small Talk as a canine advocate.
"It's kind of weird to call a dog polite, but I think that's what he is," Brace said.
Small Talk acquired Preston through private donations and a grant from the Crime Victims Services office with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Preuss Pets gives Preston a food stipend each month, Doggy Daycare and Spa donates grooming and the MSU Veterinary Medical Center donates Preston's primary care, according to Small Talk.
Preston offers a sense of ease that no human could provide, Vance said.
"The kids know Preston will never judge them," Vance said. "It's unconditional love."
© 2018 Lansing State Journal