‘She gave us all that love, kindness back’: Little girl who asked for dog pictures leaves big impact

Area police are just some of thousands of people remembering a special little girl from Hartland as her legacy and love for dogs live on.

Emma Mertens asked for pictures and letters from dogs to comfort her during her terminal illness. She died Sunday of an inoperable brain tumor.

She and her family received tens of thousands of letters and pictures of dogs, including from Hazel and his owner, Matt Nichols.

“Hazel loves chasing balls and licking faces,” Nichols said. “She’s a joy to be around. I love her.”

For dogs like Hazel, it’s all about the simple things.

“She’s great. She loves the Packers, loves being out here (at the dog park),” Nichols said.

Hazel and Nichols were happy to fulfill a simple request, sending a letter to Mertens written in Hazel’s voice.

“My red ball is my favorite and walks make me smile! I wanted to send all of those smiles and sloppy kisses your way,” the letter read, in part.

Although he never met Emma, it was tough for Nichols to hear she had died.

“It was like a punch to the gut, actually,” he said. “I was really sad.”

“To be able to see this little girl being so brave as she battled this condition made a very lasting impression,” said Lt. Edward Hartwick, of the Fitchburg Police Department.

That even goes for those who are brave for a living.

“It’s amazing to see the impact that an 8-year-old girl can have on an adult, on a group of law enforcement officers,” Hartwick said.

“She’s a special little girl,” Officer John Parker said. “She has a special place in my heart and Drago’s heart.”

Parker brought his K-9 partner Drago to visit Emma, and the three formed a quick friendship. The officer and K-9 were part of the picture on Emma’s eighth birthday and in the hospital. They even made it into a homework assignment in which Emma wrote, “I have a friend who is a dog named Drago.”

“It breaks your heart when you think about it, because of how special it is,” Parker said.

Emma got some special recognition as an honorary member of the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Canine Handler Association.

“She’s really taught a lot of people, especially Drago and I, how to appreciate the simple things in life and find happiness in the worst situations,” Parker said. “She’s done so much in her little time on earth. It’s amazing how a little 8-year-old has had such an impact.”

“It brings sadness to know that her personality and spirit isn’t here with us but, obviously, it always lives on with us,” Hartwick said.

Dog pictures may have been a simple ask, but Emma’s response is this simple lesson.

“We sent pictures to her but, in return, she gave us all that kindness and love back,” Parker said. “Those little acts of kindness can change the world.”

Emma has a foundation in her honor that supports animals, including police K-9 units. To learn more or to donate, click here.

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