When someone befriends an animal, s/he obtains the ability to unite their souls together and take on the form of that animal as well as its abilities. S/he also gain some properties of that animal even when they are no keener t transformed, such as resistence to cold or senses. If s/he really wants to s/he can half transforms taking on characteristics of the animal and their normal form
There are more ways than one to encounter a dragon. With a low level group it's obviously not feasible to meet one in its lair and fight it. But standing on a bleak moorland, utterly exposed and vulnerable, it can be a chilling experience to see something flying far far overhead. Something that could just be an eagle, but you never know...