The dragon is first seen bathing happily while singing under a small waterfall. When a boy, whose father and sheep were spooked by the dragon himself and who decided to have a look at the dragon, says Hello to the dragon, the dragon freaks out; thinking the boy came to throw stones or squirt water at him because "he won't have it." When the boy states that he simply came for a friendly chat, the dragon changes his tune; allowing the boy to be seated (the other way of course) as the dragon comes out to dry himself up when using his own tail as a towel. When the boy asks if the dragon has had any nice battles lately, has been scourging countrysides, or devouring fair damsels, the dragon denies all that; revealing that he simply makes up poetry instead (hardly the kind of thing any dragon would do). The dragon happily recites a poem called "Just A-Drifting" while dancing around; much to the opposite of a dragon's description in the boy's book.
The boy warns the dragon's in trouble and that his father is gonna have the whole village aroused with spears and things to exterminate him; considering him an enemy to the human race. The dragon denies and ignores all that and continues reciting poems and dancing; much to the boy's disappointment, which causes him to leave afterward.
After seeing that a knight named Sir Giles (a.k.a. the Dragon Killer) has arrived in town to vanquish the dragon, the boy runs back to warn the dragon only to interrupt the dragon during his music lessons with some birds. The boy tells the dragon that he will have to fight Sir Giles but the dragon refuses to fight; stating he "never does and never did" and "it doesn't agree with him." Then, the dragon tells the boy to run along and "tell Sir Giles to go home" as he continues his lesson with the birds.
After meeting Sir Giles, Sir Giles agrees to go with the boy to talk with the dragon about the fight. Then, the boy and Sir Giles find the dragon having a picnic and the dragon invites them to sit on his giant belly. When the boy introduces Sir Giles as the dragon killer, the dragon is shocked and so mad that he angrily picks up and takes away every single meal from the picnic and put it all back in his basket. But when Sir Giles tells the dragon that the boy told him that the dragon is an accomplished poet, the dragon is flattered; not exactly what the boy was expecting him to tell the dragon. Sir Giles asks him to recite a poem and the dragon offers him back some picnic meals. The dragon recites "To an upside-down cake" and Sir Giles likes it; much to the boy's disappointment. Then, Sir Giles recites "Radish so red" and the dragon likes it; despite the boy telling Sir Giles to tell the dragon about the fight.
The boy decides to recite a poem (much to both's happiness) and then angrily asks about the fight. Sir Giles finds it splendid but the dragon is shocked since there's nothing to fight and he doesn't believe in it. The boy states in his book that dragons and knights always fight and the dragon can't disappoint the whole village and Sir Giles agrees too. The dragon refuses to discuss it, goes into his cave home, and bids them goodnight.
Sir Giles and the boy try to convince the dragon otherwise with trickery about the events that will happen with the dragon fighting in action and stuff like that. They all decide to fake the fight (since the dragon was about to refuse again when it came to the subject about spears) and there's nothing in the boy's book that says otherwise. And so, it is settled for tomorrow. They all say good-bye but then the dragon tries to change his mind when the boy and Sir Giles have already left.
In the morning as the villagers are here and Sir Giles is ready in armor on horseback, everyone waits for the dragon to come out of his cave. It is revealed that the reason the dragon changed his mind yesterday was because he can't breathe fire and a dragon can only breathe fire if he's mad; much to the dragon and the boy's disappointment. Try as much as the boy can to encourage the dragon to breathe fire, the dragon is only able to breathe out a ring of smoke. But when the boy calls the dragon a "punk poet," the dragon gets angry and starts to breathe fire, only to become thrilled upon realizing that being insulted will work. Excited, the dragon asks the boy to repeat "punk poet" dozens of times as the dragon gets madder and the fire and smoke grow bigger. The dragon is now fully happy to be "mad" and able to breathe fire and sets out to battle Giles.
The "fight" begins with Sir Giles, on his horse, using his spear and the dragon using his smoke and tail as weapons. When Sir Giles chases the dragon into his cave, they fake the fight with clouds of smoke from a fire and shouting "Take that!", "Help!", and other things, while having some tea; much to Sir Giles' horse's dismay.
Then, the two resume the fight outside. During the "fight", the boy helps Sir Giles recover his spear. The dragon and Sir Giles create a cloud of smoke after crashing to one another when trying to charge. In the smoke, the dragon and Sir Giles fake the fight again as they did before while dancing; much to Sir Giles' horse's dismay again. Then, the dragon and Sir Giles decide it's time for the dragon to "die", so, they end their "fight" with the dragon pretending to have been stabbed with a spear and Sir Giles pretends he has "slayed" the dragon. After the "fight", Sir Giles "reforms the ferocious dragon" and the dragon is finally welcomed into society.
In the educational short What Can You See by Looking?, the Reluctant Dragon is depicted as being the uncle of Epcot's Figment, with the short's story being focused around Figment and a group of kids solving riddles to discover his treasure.
In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the Dragon appears along with many other classic cartoon characters as Eddie Valiant drives to Toon Town. While the rest of the Toons sing Smile Darn Ya Smile, the dragon blows kisses. He also appears later in Toon Town while being chased by Sir Giles after Eddie crashes his car. The dragon joins the rest of the Toons, as Roger Rabbit reads Marvin Acme's will and rejoices to know Marvin kept his word and left Toon Town to the Toons. He then heads back home to Toon Town knowing it will be safe from future harm, singing Smile Darn Ya Smile with the other Toons.
The Reluctant Dragon makes many cameos in House of Mouse, usually seen sitting with Sir Giles. He appears multiple times in the show's intro while running past Cruella and Mr. Toad's car crash and then seen skipping throughout the club lobby and later clapping with the other Toons as the show is about to start. He makes a noted cameo when Goofy sings the Soup or Salad song, requesting to hold the pickles from his order. He makes a notable appearance in "Music Day" shown disgusted by Mickey, Donald, and Goofy's horrendous music. He rejoiced when Huey, Dewey, and Louie take over to play. In "Mickey and Minnie's Big Vacation", he is hired by Donald (since he loves dragons) along with Elliott, Mushu, Madam Mim (in dragon form), and Dragon Maleficent as the 101 Dragons performing in the club tonight only to accidentally start a fire in the building instead; much to Hades' joy only. In "Ladies Night" he is the only male character of the audience present in the club that night, while all the other audiences are females. In "House of Crime", he was seen with Sir Giles and the boy clapping for Mickey.
In "This is Your Life, Donald Duck", the Dragon makes a cameo along with a medley of other classic-era Disney characters as they rush on stage to celebrate and show their appreciation for Donald at the end of the show. The Dragon is one of the last characters to take the stage. Like many of the characters, his animation was recycled animation from previous productions, in his case borrowed from his poetry segment in his original film.
The Reluctant Dragon appeared in the Christmas parade Fantasy on Parade in 1966. However, he looked extremely different, with green skin, red hair, a bigger nose, and a more confident look on his face.
- In the 1975 film, One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, there is a Chinese restaurant named "The Reluctant Dragon".
- The Reluctant Dragon was initially attempted to be drawn with a navel intact on its belly. However due to the Hays Office's objections at the time, the character's navel has been removed from the finished film.